If you had to guess which pitcher was leading the Braves’ organization in strikeouts, there would likely be a number of familiar prospects who came to mind before you got to the correct answer.
Is it #2 prospect Kyle Wright, who struck out 13 in a game two weeks ago? Great guess, but no. Is it #4 prospect Ian Anderson, who has taken major steps forward this year and leads the Florida Fire Frogs in strikeouts by a considerable margin? Nope. Is it #10 prospect Touki Toussaint, who was just promoted to Triple-A and owns an other-worldly curveball? Close, but he’s the runner-up.
It’s Mississippi southpaw Bruce Zimmermann, whose 113 strikeouts across two levels not only place him above these three prospects, but ahead of every other prospect in the Braves system. In fact, there are only five pitchers in all of the minor leagues with more Ks than Zimmermann.
For those who didn’t guess Z-Mann, you might be asking yourself: Who?
Even if you spend a lot of time studying up on the Braves farm system, the name still might not be familiar. You won’t find Zimmermann on any prospect ranking lists yet, but he has very quietly earned his place among the best performing pitchers in a farm system that is loaded with high-upside arms.
He also arguably owns the best mustache in the entire Braves Minor League system (honorable mention goes out to Sal Giardina).
Zimmermann is a perfect example of the Braves’ scouting staff’s ability to find stellar talent buried at smaller schools. The 2017 5th rounder was drafted out of Mt. Olive College in North Carolina, a tiny Division II school with an average annual enrollment of less than 4,000. Two years prior to catching the Braves’ eye, he transferred from Towson University, which is about 30 minutes from his Woodstock, Maryland home.
His arsenal includes two-seam and four-seam variations on a fastball, as well as a handful of off-speed and breaking pitches. He relies on a slider most out of his breaking pitches. His change-up - considered his highest-rated secondary pitch coming out of college - has similar action to his four-seamer, and comes with a lot of vertical drop. This leads to a lot of ground balls, a result which is also aided by his high arm slot. He can run the change away from both lefties and righties, making it an effective weapon for hitters on either side of the plate, though he is generally tougher on lefties. He can also spin a 12-6 curveball in the mid-70’s if he’s feeling especially froggy.
His fastballs won’t blow you away with triple-digit heat, as they often top out in the low 90s. By his own admission, Zimmermann knows he gets into trouble when he tries to light up the radar gun. He considers his strength to be pitching to contact early in counts, but this undersells his ability to get strikeouts. Getting to the point where he could overpower hitters without throwing flames wasn’t always a part of his game, but it is a skill he has integrated along the way.
At Towson, Zimm alternated between starting and relieving roles, and struggled to find his footing. Over two years, he pitched to a 9-9 record with a 6.19 ERA, averaging 6.89 K/9 with a 1.60 WHIP. He managed to keep his walks respectable (2.79 BB/9), which has long been a hallmark of his game. Upon transferring to Mt. Olive, he settled in and took a major step forward. During his two seasons as a Trojan, working strictly as a starter, he went 18-5 with a 3.19 ERA and 1.16 WHIP, and his strikeout & walk levels improved vastly in their respective directions (11 K/9, 1.60 BB/9).
It might appear that the move to the smaller program was somewhat responsible for his across-the-board improvement, but after being drafted by the Braves and assigned to Danville, he picked up right where he left off. While on an innings limit after pitching an entire season at Mt. Olive, he went 0-1 with a 3.09 ERA / 2.65 FIP, along with 10.8 K/9 and a ridiculous 56.9% ground ball rate. He also started a combined no-hitter with fellow 2017 draftees Jacob Belinda & John Curtis on August 8, 2017.
To start 2018, Zimmermann was assigned to Low-A Rome and he absolutely showed out during his first full season in pro ball. He went 7-3 with a 2.76 ERA / 2.65 FIP, and averaged 10.52 strikeouts per 9 innings; as if that wasn’t enough, his walk rate was a sparkling 1.91 BB/9. His time in Rome saw him post a six-week stretch over which he went 6-1 with an ERA of 1.32, with a ridiculous WHIP of 0.97. He was one of six Rome Braves named as a South Atlantic League All-Star, and worked a perfect inning with two strikeouts when called upon to face the Northern Division All-Stars.
It is not uncommon for pitchers with high-quality change-ups to excel in the lower levels of the minors, especially those who are considered “old” for the level (SAL average age is 21.9, while Z is playing in his age-23 season). Even still, one doesn’t just accidentally strike out 99 batters over 84⅔ innings, so it was only a matter of time before he earned himself a promotion. At the end of June, the minor league development staff decided it had seen enough in his game to completely jump him over High-A Florida and sent him directly to Double-A Mississippi. Now considered young for his league (average age for the Southern League is 24.4), and playing at a level where some of the best talent in the Minor Leagues is often concentrated, there might have been concern about how quickly he would adapt, or whether he would be able to maintain his gaudy numbers.
All Zimmermann has done in his first two games with Mississippi is strike out 14 batters over 12⅓ innings, while only allowing two runs. The seven walks are a bit of an anomaly considering his reputation as a control artist, but against a more advanced class of hitters in AA, this is an area which will require a bit of additional evolution. In the past he has proven his ability to modify his game to reach higher levels of performance, so this could just be a tiny bump in the road.
All things considered, batters have put up a .624 OPS against him in 2018, including a paltry .510 OPS by lefties.
If he makes it to the majors, he will be only the fourth player from Mt. Olive to play in the MLB, joining Steve Mintz, Tommy Layne, and Carter Capps. With his emergence as a legitimate weapon, along with his small-town to big-stage story finally in full swing, Zimmermann is an easy guy to pull for. He is definitely an arm to keep your eye on in 2018 and beyond.