I didn’t want to jinx it, so I waited until it was over before posting on it. Prior to Monday’s blow-up against the Yankees, Joel Zumaya had pitched 18.2 consecutive innings to begin the season without issuing a single walk. That might be a ho-hum feat for the control freaks of the pitching profession like Zack Greinke and Roy Halladay. For Zumaya, there’s nothing ho-hum about it. The previous best walk-less streak of his career was just 12.1 innings. His next best stretch after that is just six innings. With Zumaya’s newfound affection for the strike zone, it should come as no surprise that he’s flashing shades of 2006 when he was the most feared pitcher in baseball. Part of his early success came from mixing 103 MPH heat with wicked off-speed stuff. However, a bigger part had to do with throwing strikes, or at least not being the worst pitcher in baseball at throwing strikes. Although injuries have certainly been a major factor in Zoom-Zoom’s struggles over the past three seasons, equally responsible was his penchant for issuing the free pass. Prior to this season, his career BB/9 was a horrendous 5.4 including an unfathomable 7.3 over the past two seasons. Even during his stellar rookie campaign, he was at a far from respectable 4.5 BB/9. Hitters might not be able to catch up to his heater, but they can sure avoid swinging at pitches out of the strike zone. That had been “the book” on big Z until this season. Remarkably, he is sporting a .9 BB/9 through 20 innings this season. As a result, he has been one of the most dominant relievers in baseball despite a robust and incredibly unlucky BAbip of .370. Most pitchers carrying around that stat are on their way to AAA. Zumaya’s control has made that a moot point. His 1.10 WHIP thus far is the best mark of his career—as is his 10.8 K/9. And, he has yet to give up a home run. All are signs that, at least for the time being, Zumaya has found the one thing that separates pitchers from throwers: control.
The Tigers are 19-15 and very much in the thick of the AL Central race. They have done this despite a frightening 5.49 ERA from their starting pitching. Fortunately, the bullpen has been, by far, the best in baseball. And, nobody has been more responsible for that than Zumaya. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that he has logged the most innings out of the pen not only for the Tigers been in the entire American League. His 2.24 ERA and .9 BB/9 have spearheaded a bullpen that not only leads the AL in innings pitched but also ERA. There’s no question that the unit as a whole has been fantastic. Jose Valverde has been sparkling in the closer role while Phil Coke, Eddie Bonine, and Fu-Te Ni have been ultra reliable. However, there’s also no question that Zumaya’s re-emergence as the most effective set-up man in the American League has restored order to the Tigers bullpen and, for the time being, has allowed the Tigers to play well above their means despite horrific starting pitching.
While it’s safe to assume that the starting pitching will eventually rebound, the same assumption cannot be made regarding Joel Zumaya’s health. Just 20 innings into the season, he is already approaching the most innings he has pitched in a season since 2006 (33.2 in ’07). Jim Leyland—to no fault of his own—has been relying on Zumaya heavily. He has pitched at least 1.2 innings in 9 of his 13 appearances. He has logged the most innings of any reliever in the American League and has thrown the 5th most pitches among relievers in the AL. Considering his injury history and knack for abruptly breaking down, it might be wishful thinking to expect Zumaya to still be pitching in September let alone July or August. Still, the law of averages would seem to dictate that Zumaya is due for a healthy season. Then again, I’m not so sure the “law of averages” is supposed to be applied to a 210+ pound man with a lengthy injury history hurling a baseball 100+ MPH. Cliché as it is, “so far, so good” is all I've got.