Memorable Careers: Joel Zumaya

Some baseball players are stars, burning bright in our night sky year after year, dazzling us with their effervescence and majesty. Others are nebulous gases — full of potential, capable of becoming stars, but never quite taking that step to stardom. Even rarer are the comets: players that flash across the sky in a blaze of brilliance and wonder, only to vanish before we have the chance to appreciate their splendor.

No player in my lifetime has been more of a comet than Joel Zumaya, the hard-throwing right hander who buttressed the Tigers bullpen during their 2006 season. As part of our series on Memorable Careers, I wanted to look back at the tremendous highs and the farcical lows of “Zoom-Zoom,” a pitcher who’s greatest gift was also his undoing.

Zumaya was never highly touted as a prospect. An eleventh-round pick out of Bonita Vista High School in 2002, Zumaya was pegged as a reliever from the start. His velocity was unmatched; he routinely threw in the low 90s in high school, and after cleaning up his mechanics in Triple-A his fastball sat between 98 and 100 miles per hour. Zumaya threw hard, but he didn’t always throw accurately; in 2005, across Double-A and Triple-A, Zumaya averaged 4.5 walks per 9 innings. He also battled a sore back for much of his minor league career, foreshadowing injury troubles that would derail his major league career.

2006 was a special year for Zumaya and the Tigers. After finishing with a woeful 71-91 record in 2005, the Tigers projected as a .500 team, at best. Under new manager Jim Leyland, the team improved to a 95-77 record, enough to win them a berth in the postseason. It was a perfectly balanced team; veterans like Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez and Kenny Rogers provided leadership for budding superstars like Curtis Granderson, Justin Verlander, and Joel Zumaya, who made the team out of Spring Training.

2006 was the best year of Zumaya’s major and minor league career. He posted a 1.94 ERA across 62 games while striking out 97 batters. He overpowered hitters with a ferocious fastball. Zumaya threw 234 pitches of 100mph or more in 2006, at the time an MLB record. One of those pitches registered at 104mph, a speed almost unheard of at that time.

His intensity and energy on the mound matched his pitching style. He was a firecracker who threw firecrackers. “I acted beastly,” Zumaya told Bob Wojnowski of the Detroit News in 2010. “I had a different approach, just an angry dude, full of steam and jet fuel, and I wanted to blow it past people.” He did that to great effect in the 2006 ALDS against the New York Yankees, baffling All-Stars and Hall of Famers alike in his two appearances in that series. But don’t just take my word for it; watch Derek Jeter’s pitiful swing and miss for strike three against Zumaya in Game 2 of the 2006 ALDS.

But the 2006 postseason also marked the start of Zumaya’s farcical injury record. He only appeared in one game in the 2006 ALCS. At the time, the team called the injury a “sore wrist” due to overuse during the season. In the offseason, though, General Manager Dave Dombrowski confirmed the injury was due to overuse of a different kind: Zumaya had hurt his hand by playing too much “Guitar Hero.”

“My hand just flared up on me, the right hand, the thumb, I couldn’t grip the baseball,” Zumaya said in 2019 on a podcast with 97.1 The Ticket. “I couldn’t throw the baseball.

“The ‘Guitar Hero’ had just come out, and I fell in love with the game, dude. I’m a rock-and-roll fan. It’s a killer game. … ‘Hell, I’m gonna buy this.’ … Guess I got hurt, dude.”

Guitar heroism aside, Zumaya had other injury problems throughout his career. In 2007, he missed twelve weeks after rupturing a tendon in his throwing hand. That offseason, while helping his father move boxes out of an attic at his home in California, a box fell on Zumaya. The accident separated Zumaya’s AC joint and kept him sidelined until June 2008. He made multiple trips to the DL in 2009, before opting for surgery in August.

The scariest moment came in a 2010 game against the Twins. In the bottom of the eighth inning, Zumaya fired a pitch that registered at 99mph on the radar gun. He dropped to the ground in obvious pain, clutching his elbow. After the game the diagnosis came in: Zumaya had fractured his elbow. He would be out for four months. It was the last pitch he ever threw in a Tigers uniform.

All told, Zumaya had six surgeries in his baseball career. He learned how to throw hard, harder than anyone who came before him; but he never learned how to pitch.

Zumaya has made peace with his career on the baseball diamond. “I’m over it now,” he said. “I just let it be. I let it be, man. It was fun while it lasted.” Zumaya now spends most of his time fishing off the coast of San Diego.

Suspense writers know that it’s often what goes on offscreen, away from the camera, that can be the most terrifying. Not so in baseball. We know that there are thousands of players who dream of making an impact in the major leagues, only to fall short or watch their chances disintegrate under the crush of injuries and misuse. We know they exist, but we don’t see them.

In baseball, it’s the players that make it to the top, only to fall back down, that stay with us. They had the world at their fingertips, but their fingers went listless and numb. What could be sadly transforms into what could have been.

But for a moment, rather than focusing on what could have been, let’s focus on what was. You can say that Joel Zumaya could have been great — and, indeed, injuries derailed what could have been an outstanding, even Hall of Fame-worthy, career. But in 2006, for that magical season, he was great. That, not his downfall, is what makes him memorable.

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