KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The first thing right-hander Kyle Zimmer assures everyone is that his arm, shoulder and elbow are just fine.
Zimmer, the Royals’ first-round pick in 2012, knows he created quite a stir when he reported some stiffness in his shoulder after pitching two perfect innings for Double-A Northwest Arkansas on Aug. 14. Upon hearing that news, the Royals immediately shut him down for the season, mainly because there were just two weeks left to play anyway.
“And the other reason was he was pretty near his innings threshold for the season,” Royals assistant general manager J.J. Picollo says. “Why take a chance?”
There was plenty of fear among the Royals’ fan base, though, because Zimmer had just had elbow surgery one year before.
“That surgery, though, was so minor,” Zimmer tells FOXSportsKansasCity.com. “I mean, it was about as minor of a surgery as you can have. They just went in and cleaned out some loose bodies that were floating around. No big deal.”
Still, the Royals were not about to roll the dice with a pitcher they took fifth overall in 2012, and a pitcher they firmly believe can become part of their rotation soon — possibly by next season.
Zimmer, 22, himself sees that progression as a real possibility.
“It’s not my decision, but if I have to start (back in the minors) it won’t be because of any health issues,” he says. “My arm feels great right now and actually I can’t wait to start throwing again and getting back at it. But my normal throwing schedule doesn’t start for a while yet. But I’m not worried at all — the stiffness I felt was just very, very minor and it went away quickly. It’s all good.”
That’s certainly a relief for the Royals, who watched in amazement as Zimmer transformed last season into the dominant pitcher they dreamed about when they drafted him.
“There’s a lot of pitchers out there who have talent,” Picollo says. “But this kid, he’s got talent and he’s very smart, very intelligent. He’s very advanced in that degree. He not only has great stuff, but he can outthink hitters.”
Granted, there was some serious head-scratching early last season when Zimmer started out at high-A Wilmington and struggled. He went 4-8 with a 4.82 ERA.
“We couldn’t figure it out,” Picollo says. “He was grading out extremely high with his command and his pitches, but the results weren’t there. I know people thought we were just protecting him when we were saying that, but we weren’t making it up. He really was pitching very well and it was just that the numbers didn’t show it.”
Zimmer graded out so well at Wilmington that the Royals promoted him to Northwest Arkansas in July, a move that seemed to many based more on wishful thinking than merit.
Bu then Zimmer’s results caught up with grades.
In his first two Double-A starts, Zimmer was nearly unhittable. He threw back-to-back, six-inning shutouts, giving up just five hits total. In his second start, he struck out 12 hitters.
Altogether, he finished 2-1 with a 1.93 ERA at Northwest Arkansas while striking out 27 hitters in 18 2/3 innings.
Zimmer’s explanation is that he finally started getting some breaks.
“At Wilmington, I’d be pitching great and then have one bad inning,” he says. “There’d be a broken-bat single here, a jam shot there, and the next thing you know, I’d give up a big inning. But then at Arkansas, those jam shots started getting caught and I got into a groove.”
There was a minor mechanical adjustment, too.
“From the stretch, I started with hands closer to my waist,” he says. “That’s more like where they are when I’m in the wind-up. That made me more comfortable and more consistent. I wasn’t having to rush through anything in the stretch and I didn’t fly open my shoulders as much.”
Then came the shoulder stiffness.
“It’s hard to describe, but it just felt a little tired and sore,” he says. “I would have kept on pitching but they said no. But it felt fine right after that.”
Because Zimmer had already thrown 108 innings for the year, and he was targeted for about 120, there was no reason to push the matter.
Zimmer packed up and went home to San Diego. And then, upon the urging of his parents, he decided to return to the University of San Francisco to work toward finishing his degree in business administration.
“I’m really glad I did that,” he says. “I wouldn’t have had a chance had I pitched those final two weeks because I would have missed some class time. But now I’m back in school and I’m taking four classes — I need six to graduate.”
Zimmer even has visions of law school one day.
“My parents have always said to be prepared,” he says. “You never know what will happen in baseball, so I want to be ready. I’d like to be a sports agent someday or maybe even a broadcaster.”
Mostly, though, Zimmer’s mind is on baseball and on waiting for spring training to arrive. The Royals, who likely will have some spots in the rotation to fill, are expected to give Zimmer a long look in Surprise, Az., for one of those spots.
“He absolutely could be a factor there,” Picollo says. “Like I said before, he’s very advanced. There are no limitations on him.”
You can follow Jeffrey Flanagan on Twitter at @jflanagankc or email email@example.com.