It’s easy to forget sometimes that Kyle Zimmer was a converted third baseman who pitched for just two seasons at the University of San Francisco before the Royals made him their first pick in last year’s draft.
After just nine starts last summer, Zimmer had surgery to remove bone chips in his elbow.
So in retrospect, it’s maybe not so surprising that Zimmer, 21, ran into a rough patch this year in his first full season as a professional with Class A-Advanced Wilmington.
But, whew, it was rough. At one point, after not making it out of the first inning in a game on June 7, Zimmer had a bloated 6.32 ERA.
In his five starts since that game, however, Zimmer has pitched at least six innings each time. In his last three starts, Zimmer given up four runs on 12 hits in 20 innings (1.80 ERA) with 26 strikeouts and just two walks.
With his fastball reaching the upper 90s, Zimmer is pitching like a high first-round draft pick.
“I think I’ve just been clearing up some mechanical things I’ve been working on and things are starting to click and fall into place,” Zimmer said in a phone interview. “I’ve been able to throw my off-speed pitches for strikes a lot and really just getting ahead and attacking the zone and making quality pitches which is helping out.”
J.J. Picollo, the Royals assistant general manager of scouting and player development, said Zimmer’s mechanical difficulties largely came when he was pitching with runners on base.
“Where he was running into a lot of his problems was out of the stretch, his opponents were hitting about 200 points higher out of the stretch than they were out of the wind-up,” Picollo said. “So it was really just trying to figure out what was going on out of the stretch.”
While things have improved, the splits are still ugly.
With the bases empty, teams are hitting .198 and Zimmer has 72 strikeouts and 15 walks in 552/3 innings. With runners on, opponents are batting .325 with 31 strikeouts and 15 walks in 29 innings. His ERA with runners in scoring position is 20.39.
But Zimmer, a 6-foot-3, 215-pound right-hander, believes he’s identified the mechanical trouble.
“I made a small adjustment with that,” Zimmer said. “I was starting with my hands set upright around the chest area and made the adjustment to sort of start my hands out of the stretch down by my waist like I do out of the wind-up. It just allowed me to be a little more comfortable and not tense up my shoulders when I was coming set and help my mechanics as far as staying in line and not yanking my front side as much out of the stretch.
“That’s been, I think, a key adjustment.”
Picollo said the other aspect of pitching with runners on base was mental.
“If you go back and look at the runs allowed, a lot were in bunches, and it was where things happened quickly and a couple of guys get on,” Picollo said. “Instead of maintaining a one- or two-run inning and controlling the damage, he was trying to strike guys out and get out of it without giving up anything and making mistakes. And all of a sudden it was four runs.”
Zimmer has given up three or more runs in an inning nine times this season, totally 33 runs in those innings. That’s 62.3 percent of the 53 runs he’s allowed all year.
The good news for Royals fans is that Zimmer realizes the big inning has been his bugaboo, and that the tough time may actually make him a better pitcher in the long run.
“I think you could ask a guy who’s been pitching for 40 years would tell you that he still has things to learn,” Zimmer said. “Pitching is a very intricate science and any time you can talk to the older guys and the guys who have been doing it for a long time and picking up little tidbits, it’s something that you can grow and learn every single day.
“Knowing that you don’t have it all figured out and being open to learn and talking to guys and figure out different aspects of pitching is key, I think, to being successful.”
Zimmer has found success over those last three starts, particularly his last outing on Tuesday in an 8-1 victory against Frederick. In six innings, Zimmer allowed a run on four hits with 13 strikeouts and no walks.
The 13 strikeouts were the most by a Wilmington player since Jake Odorizzi had 13 against Salem on May 10, 2011.
That’s the kind of performance the Royals were hoping for when they drafted Zimmer, who says he’s feeling great and has no ill effects from surgery.
“My stuff has actually been better this year than it has ever been,” Zimmer said. “My arm has felt tremendous and my velocity has been great and the off-speed has been really good. That doesn’t have any effect on my pitching.
“As I keep going along and learn more and more and fine tune my mechanics, things just get sharper and sharper. It’s definitely a long process and a long year, but trying to find something to improve on every day is something I definitely try and do.”