When the Atlanta Braves picked Bruce Zimmermann last June with their fifth-round choice, the rationale was simple. The organization has had luck with small-college arms with impressive numbers. The bigger takeaway, however, was that Zimmermann was a senior sign. A senior sign is almost a rarity in today’s age. It refers to a guy who has exhausted his amateur status and has no leverage to go back to school rather than sign. Because Zimmermann had spent four years split between Towson and Mount Olive, he had no choice but to sign if he wanted to keep playing baseball.
Because of that, he received just $10,000 in a signing bonus. No other fifth-rounder received less than $200,000 and one, Sam McMillan, signed for a million. Most teams were close to their slot value. But not the Braves. Zimmermann’s value was that he would sign and sign for cheap, allowing Atlanta the opportunity to invest the money saved on slot value elsewhere. Former General Manager John Coppolella loved to manipulate the slot values almost as much as he loved to funnel money to international free agents.
Funny thing, though. Zimmermann is pitching like a guy who deserved not only a high-value pick but a higher choice than was used on him.
In seven starts this year for Rome, Zimmermann had a 2.82 ERA, 2.45 FIP, and 2.63 xFIP. He has struck out 31% of opposing batters while walking just 4.6%. Or to put that in more raw totals, in 38.1 innings, Zimmermann has walked just seven batters. He’s struck out 48. The Mount Olive product has been nearly dynamite all season outside of being crushed for nine runs, seven earned, in four innings back on April 12. He’s allowed seven runs, five earned, since that start with a 1.24 ERA. In three of his last four outings, he’s struck out at least nine batters.
In some ways, he’s building on last summer’s success in Danville – though with even better results. Despite being a college starter, there was belief Zimmermann profiled better as a reliever and would be used as such. That never happened despite the Braves limiting Zimmermann to just 23.1 innings over eleven starts with the D-Braves. He was quite successful, though, with a K-rate of 29% and a walk rate at 9%. This year, he’s only improved.
Where did Zimmermann come from? A Baltimore-area product, he stayed in state and started his post-high school career with Towson. After a decent freshman season, he struggled through a 7.64 ERA in 2015. Zimmermann transferred south to Mount Olive College in North Carolina. He could be a full-time starter there and over two years, maintained an ERA of about 3.18 with gaudy strikeout numbers and tremendous control. Sure, it was Division 2 baseball. It was also eye-opening numbers as 241 strikeouts in 197.2 innings tends to be.
A lefty, Zimmermann sits in the low-to-mid 90’s. While his change-up and curveball didn’t have high ratings when he was drafted, the results kind of speak for themselves. And as you might expect, as a southpaw, Zimmermann makes life really difficult on left-handed batters. They are hitting an abysmal .164/.200/.213 this season against him. Ouch.
Until this year, the most interesting thing about Zimmermann was his stache. Now, he’s turning into a legit prospect. It’s hard not to think Zimmermann will be moving into the Top 30 prospect rankings by midseason based on his early results. Certainly, we can pull back a bit here. Zimmermann, at 23, is a bit older than the league average in the South Atlantic League. To be fair, he had less than 25 innings of professional experience entering 2018. Further, a smart and crafty pitcher can carve up inexperienced hitters at this level.
If Zimmermann remains successful, though, he will get his shot to move up and will be challenged. The Braves have long preferred to keep guys at Rome for a year to allow them to get used to a full-year schedule, but Zimmermann might push their approach. Plus, with four years of college, he may not need that much time in Single-A. And if things keep going the way they have so far, there is not going to be a hitter in the South Atlantic League who won’t be happy to see Zimmermann move up when it happens. Especially the lefties.