Jordan Zimmermann and Gio Gonzalez have a few notable things in common. The Washington Nationals mound duo have outstanding stuff and rely more on pitching to their strengths than on scouting reports. Each boasts an ERA under 3.00 and is one of the best pitchers in the National League.
They also have their differences. Zimmermann is a reserved right-hander with a four-pitch mix and a relatively low strikeout rate [6.52]. Gonzalez is a fun-loving southpaw with a three-pitch mix and a high strikeout rate [11.02]. The 26-year-old Zimmermann returned to the Nationals rotation after undergoing Tommy John surgery, the 27-year-old Gonzalez arrived via an off-season trade.
Zimmermannn on his approach: “I look at scouting reports a little bit, but I don’t like to look at them too much. I watch some video, but I don’t get too caught up in what’s in the reports.
“I’m always out there seeing how the hitter’s swing is and making adjustments during the game. I’m seeing things like where his front foot is landing. If he’s late on the fastball, I’m going to throw it again. If he’s on something, I’m probably going to mix it up and throw something else.
“What I throw has a lot to do with how I feel that day — what I feel is going to be working. On any given day, it could be a different pitch that‘s my best pitch. I’m obviously going to come after guys with my fastball, but it could be my curveball or my slider that’s my better pitch that day.”
On his curveball and his slider: “I throw a pretty hard slider. It’s 86 to 88 or 89 [mph]. It’s kind of like a small baby cutter. It doesn’t move as much as most guys’ sliders, but it has that little bit of movement where I can miss the barrel. My curveball is 78 to 80, so there’s little bit of a differential there. I have a pretty good feel for both, so I can throw either one of them.
“One day my curve is going to be great and the next day my slider is going to be great. When I have both of them working, it’s going to be a long day for the hitters.”
On his fastball and his changeup: “A couple of guys have said that I have a sneaky fastball. I don’t know if it’s just my short arm motion, or what it is, but apparently it gets on hitters a little bit.
“I think my changeup is pretty good right now. I’ve been throwing it more and more each game, and I’m getting more and more and more comfortable with it. It’s a circle change and I’m happy with the progress I’ve made with it. It‘s good to have a four-pitch mix.”
On pitching to contact: “Before I had Tommy John, I was striking a lot of guys out. I would throw a lot of pitches. Once I came back from it, I told myself, ‘Let’s pitch to contact and let’s not strike as many guys out.’ That way I can stay in the game longer.
“To me, pitching to contact means making your pitch and not being too nasty, and wasting pitches. You’re just making a pitch that’s on the corner. If you can throw a good strike, more times than not they’re going to put it in play and get themselves out.
“I think [my higher ground-ball rate] is just the way the balls are falling. I’m keeping the ball down in the zone and the more of the [pitches] that are being put into play are on the ground.”
Gonzalez on coming to Washington from Oakland: “National League, American League, it doesn’t matter. They know how to swing the bat in each league, even the pitchers. The biggest difference to me is that you have to be more alert as a starting pitcher. You have to know the situation.
“I’ve never bought into the idea that the ballpark makes a huge difference. You have to compete, regardless of the ballpark you’re playing in. No matter how big or small it is, the game is still going to go on and you still have to make pitches.”
On his improved command: “I would say that my command is a little bit better this year. It’s gotten more in the zone. I’ve been trying to attack the zone, because I want to avoid walks as much as possible. But I’m still working on my fastball command. Every day it’s a work in progress.
“I’m trying to stay back a little bit and not rush myself. Most of the time, Cat [pitching coach Steve McCatty] doesn’t fill me up with too much information. He doesn’t want me to overload. He helps me out part by part, little by little. He gives me little things that I should take in at the moment, and not [everything] at once. I think he does a great job of that with me.”
On his curveball: “My curveball is a blessing. My father taught it to me. He felt that it was a pitch he wanted me to learn, right on the side of the house, and it just ended up working. I never asked what the tricks were, or anything like that. He made it simple for me to use on my own form, and it works for me. I’ve never changed my grip since the day my dad showed me how to throw it. He taught me how to try to make it look exactly like a fastball.
“I have to throw my curveball for strikes to get hitters off my fastball. I obviously don’t have the most overpowering fastball in the major leagues, so I have to keep them off balance. They can hit any fastball. It doesn’t matter how fast you throw it.”
On his changeup and his season thus far: “I’m working on my changeup, which is a good third pitch to have, especially with all the great hitters up here. I’m throwing it a lot more this year and it’s actually one of my fondest pitches out of the three. I’ve improved the quality of it. I’m constantly throwing it, anywhere and everywhere. When I’m shagging in the outfield, or just sitting in the dugout, I grip it and try not to lose the feel for it. It’s a four-seam grip.
“I think I am [pitching as well as my numbers], but the more I think about what I want to do individually, the more likely it is that I’ll end up out of the rotation. The less I think about it, the better I’m going to be. I like to keep things as simple as possible.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.