Disabato: Andrew grad Zimmerman a fine frosh at NIU
July 6, 2011 6:04PM
Updated: January 23, 2012 2:52AM
When Jeff Zimmerman was asked by Northern Illinois University baseball coach Ed Mathey to write down his goals before the start of the season, one of his individual ambitions was to hit .300.
Which he did, finishing with a .326 average.
He also wanted to “start the majority of the games” and “be a trusted and respected teammate.”
“He was all of those,” Mathey said.
And so much more.
Nowhere on Zimmerman’s personal list of desires was to be named to the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association’s Freshman All-American Team or Collegiate Baseball’s Freshman All-American squad.
Neither did his to-do list include being named to the Mid-American Conference First Team or its Freshman of the Year.
Those honors were bestowed on the Andrew graduate after a scary good freshman season for the Huskies.
“Zimm,” who eerily resembles fellow Andrew alum and current Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Garrett Jones, always has been a humble kid who prefers to let his bat do the talking.
The 6-foot-3, left-handed-hitting slugger added his name to the freshman record book at NIU. His 11 homers and 47 RBI top the all-time freshman list and his 13 doubles rank second. Those 11 dingers were third-most by any freshman at any level of Division I in 2011.
“Honestly, none of those were goals of mine,” Zimmerman said. “I’m just really thankful and blessed to have this happen to me.”
Where most freshmen struggle getting acclimated to the increased speed of the college game, Zimmerman instantly felt right at home. During the Huskies’ annual season-opening spring trip, Zimmerman showed he was ready for prime time against powerhouses Arizona State, UC Riverside and Texas Tech.
“I had a hot start,” Zimmerman said. “I was hitting like .500 through the first 10 games. That surprised me because of the competition we were playing.
“Overall, it didn’t seem all that different to me (than high school). I wasn’t intimidated by the pitching. The overall pace of the game was definitely faster. But I’ve always preferred faster pitching. Baseball is baseball.”
Try telling that to Adam Dunn, the White Sox free agent who has struggled immensely. Some have directed Dunn’s struggles to his inability to adapt to full-time designated hitter duties.
Zimmerman, a first baseman at Andrew, had no such qualms as the Huskies’ primary DH.
“I can’t relate to what Dunn is going through,” said Zimmerman, a White Sox fan. “I love to DH and had a great time doing it. You just had to focus on hitting and not have to worry about playing the field. It made the college adjustment that much easier for me.”
Zimmerman also benefited from a slight adjustment to his stride when swinging.
Most pitchers preferred to keep the ball away from Zimmerman in high school, forcing him to stride toward the plate instead of directly at the pitcher in an effort to put the barrel of the bat on the baseball.
College pitchers challenge hitters inside more. Maintaining his high school stride would have caused Zimmerman to get jammed more frequently.
“That was probably the biggest adjustment for me,” said Zimmerman, a two-time SouthtownStar All-Area team member. “The good thing about this level is pitchers will challenge you inside. When I’d start to struggle at the plate, that (old stride) would be the reason. It’s harder to hit an inside pitch when you’re striding toward the plate. I had do a lot of reps to change my stride where it became comfortable to me.”
Zimmerman is playing in the Prospect College Summer Wood Bat League in Hannibal, Mo. He’s reacquainting himself with first base, where he’ll spend more time next season at NIU.
And while the accolades are much deserved, Zimmerman is the first to admit there is room for improvement.
“I definitely had flaws in my season — too many strikeouts,” said Zimmerman, who fanned 63 times in 215 at-bats. “I’m working hard on that. If I don’t strike out as much, it would improve my numbers on everything.”
Mathey, who has led NIU to four seasons of at least 30 wins during his nine seasons as coach, is confident Zimmerman will make more contact.
“He’s only going to get better,” said Mathey, a Thornton graduate. “Jeff had as good of a freshman year as I’ve had here or the program had prior to me. He has a high ceiling. He has a chance to play at a pretty high level of baseball. The next few years, opposing teams scouting reports are going to say, ‘Don’t let Jeff Zimmerman beat you.’ ”
Easier said than done.