Zumaya was drafted out of Bonita Vista High School in the 11th round by the Tigers, the 320th overall selection of the 2002 MLB Draft. He was chosen because of his power arm, but it was not clear whether he would be able to develop adequate control or an off-speed pitch. He is widely known for his 100 MPH fastball and revved up attitude.
Zumaya began his stint in the Tigers minor league system as a starting pitcher. Because he was drafted straight out of high school, Zumaya frequently pitched against players older than himself. In 2003, the 18-year-old Zumaya made great strides pitching for the Low-A affiliate West Michigan Whitecaps. 2004 saw Zumaya begin the year pitching for the High-A affiliate Lakeland Tigers, before a late season promotion to the Double-A Erie SeaWolves. He finished the season with a .500 win–loss record and struggled with walks. Zumaya began the 2005 season back in Erie; however, his results were much improved from 2004, and he was soon promoted to the Triple-A Toledo Mud Hens. He finished the season with a 199 strikeouts in 151 innings pitched. In 77 games over four seasons, Zumaya was 27–19, and averaged 6.4 hits and 11.1 strikeouts per nine innings.
During home games at Comerica Park, Zumaya enters the game from the bullpen to the song "Voodoo Child" by Jimi Hendrix. For a time he entered to Slayer's "Raining Blood", but eventually returned to coming out of the bullpen to "Voodoo Child".
With the Tigers, he has most often been used as a middle relief pitcher and occasionally as a setup man, filling the innings after the starter has finished and before the closer has come in. Zumaya is a fan favorite for his intense, aggressive attitude on the mound and his 100 MPH fastball, which has topped out at 104.6 MPH. This was the fastest pitch ever recorded, earning him the nickname "Zoom-Zoom". He also has a very good knuckle-curve that he uses as an off-speed pitch. He was among the primary reasons for the Tigers' bullpen success in 2006, joining fellow rookie Justin Verlander on the resurgent 2006 Tiger team.
While he held batters to a .187 batting average in 2006, he was even tougher with runners in scoring position (.176), and two outs and runners in scoring position (.143). Zumaya remained in the bullpen for the 2006 playoffs. However, Zumaya was sidelined for the 2006 American League Championship Series by a sore wrist, which Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski disclosed in a December 2006 radio interview was due to Zumaya playing the PlayStation 2 video game Guitar Hero. On the Xbox 360 version of Guitar Hero II, the credits read: No pitchers were harmed in the making of this game. Except for one. Joel Zumaya. He had it coming.
Zumaya's future has been recently clouded by injury. In May 2007, he ruptured a tendon in his hand, requiring surgery and 12 weeks rehab. On August 2, 2007, the Tigers activated Zumaya from the 15-day disabled list after not playing since May 1. The next day, he made his first major league appearance following the injury, pitching to one batter in a game against the Cleveland Indians.
Zumaya sustained another injury, this time to his shoulder, during the 2007 offseason. While helping his father move some boxes in the attic at his father's home in advance of the wild fires approaching the area, a 50–60 pound box fell on his right (pitching) shoulder, separating it. He was placed on the 60-day disabled list at the start of the 2008 season. After appearing in six successful minor league rehab games for the Single-A Lakeland Flying Tigers and Triple-A Toledo Mud Hens, Zumaya rejoined the Tigers on June 20, 2008.
Zumaya was placed on the 15-day DL with a sore right shoulder on, 2009. He was reactivated by the end of April; however, he was placed back on the 15-day DL following a July 18 appearance against the New York Yankees, where it was reported he could barely move his right (throwing) arm.
Zumaya will have surgery in August and is done for the season.
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During the 2006 season, Zumaya often threw pitches that were clocked at or above the official record reading of 101 MPH. On July 3, 2006, at McAfee Coliseum in Oakland, California, Justin Verlander, Joel Zumaya, and Fernando Rodney each threw multiple fastballs clocked in at over 100 MPH, becoming the first time in MLB history that three pitchers on the same team had done so during a game. Just five games into the season, they became the first MLB team to have the same three pitchers throw over 100 MPH in a season. On July 4, 2006, at McAfee Coliseum in Oakland, California, Zumaya threw a pitch clocked at 103 MPH, thus tying the "unofficial" record held by Mark Wohlers. On July 20, 2006, in a game against the Chicago White Sox, Zumaya threw a fastball that television speedguns recorded at 104 MPH, but it has not yet been decided if this speed will be recognized. Similarly, on May 20, 2006, Zumaya gave up a grand slam to Ken Griffey, Jr. on a pitch that FSN Detroit's radar gun clocked at 104 MPH, but it was concluded that the fastball was 100 MPH, and the ball that was hit was traveling 104 MPH.
Zumaya hit 104 MPH on the Comerica Park radar gun on August 7 while pitching against Minnesota Twins infielder Nick Punto. Zumaya reached 101 MPH or higher on five of six pitches during the at-bat. He also reached 103 MPH during the Tigers' 4–3 playoff victory at Yankee Stadium on October 5, 2006; and also on October 10, 2006, during Game 1 of the ALCS in Oakland, against the A's.
Despite the accuracy of radar guns being in question, it is likely that Zumaya throws some of the fastest pitches in baseball. In an interview for Detroit radio station WRIF, former Tigers pitcher Denny McLain stated that he believed the numbers on stadium and television radar guns were inflated. However, he also claimed that Zumaya had the most consistently fast pitches he had seen in person since Nolan Ryan and former Houston Astro J.R. Richard.
However there is a new technology on the horizon that reads pitch speeds more accurately and does not inflate those numbers. It uses cameras and software to obtain the data. This new technology comes from Major League Baseball in its Advanced Media section. Part of Enhanced Gameday tracks pitch speed, break, and trajectory. One pitch registered on this was clocked at 104.8 MPH at release by Joel Zumaya. This was during Game 1 of the ALCS against Frank Thomas of the Oakland Athletics on October 10, 2006, at Oakland's McAfee Coliseum (other readings were at 103 MPH; the slowest reading was 102 MPH).
After the 2006 season, The Bill James Handbook published a list of pitchers and the number of their pitches thrown at 100 mph or more. Zumaya led the Major Leagues with 233. Zumaya's average fastball was 98.6 MPH, with 100+ MPH fastballs coming one out of six pitches.
- "If you've never seen Joel Zumaya before, get ready. This guy can bring it." – Joe Buck, during game 3 of the 2006 World Series
- "Well, we had the heat with Verlander, and now the heat's going to be turned up even more." – Jon Miller on ESPN television as Zumaya entered Game 2 of the 2006 American League Division Series against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium
- "Not fair. Not fair at all" – Fox Sports Net commentator Rod Allen, referring to Zumaya having used his breaking ball following five consecutive 100 MPH-plus fastballs to strike out Vladimir Guerrero.
- ESPN the Magazine notes that on one occasion "In an ALDS game in the Bronx, Zumaya threw so hard that Alex Rodriguez said he never saw the ball"
During the 2007 season, the Tigers drafted Zumaya's brother, Richard Zumaya, who signed with the Tigers and spent the rest of the season pitching with the GCL Tigers.
- Career statistics and player information from MLB, or ESPN, or Baseball-Reference, or Fangraphs, or The Baseball Cube