August 2011

What is ailing Ubaldo?

We can all agree that Roy Halladay is a pretty good pitcher, right? OK. Now that we’ve got that out of the way…

In 2004, Halladay was coming off a 22-win, Cy Young season with the Blue Jays. Then, at 27-year-old old, he laid an egg, going 8-8 with a 4.20 ERA in 2005. His season eventually ended with a “dead arm” and people wondering if Doc would ever be the same again.

Well, Halladay’s been just fine since that trying season, going 117-52 with a 2.86 ERA in the years since. Shoot, only a few years ago Halladay had a 10.02 ERA over a four-start stretch that had red flags flying north of the border.

My point is this: even baseball’s best pitchers enduring rough stretches, or even down seasons. Sometimes there are physical explanations, or sometimes it’s a mechanical flaw, or a reduction in velocity, or fading command, or whatever other possibilities exist out there. There are plenty.

Right now, the Indians are trying to figure out what is ailing Ubaldo Jimenez.

Like the good doctor in 2004, Ubaldo is 27 years old, coming off an incredible season (19 wins, 3rd in voting for the NL Cy Young) and only has a handle of solid seasons prior to this one on his resume. The Indians are hoping, praying and begging the baseball gods that Jimenez can have a similar comeback.

Before getting into a pile of Ubaldorithms, it is important to note that the blockbuster trade for Jimenez was not JUST for contending this season. It felt like a “win now” move due to Cleveland’s place in the standings, but this deal was really intended for increasing the chances over 2011-2013.

That said, Ubaldo had a chance to make an immediate impact on the Tribe. He has had an impact, too, just not in the way the Indians had hoped.

To all the Indians fans saying trading for Jimenez was an awful idea, that giving up Alex White and Drew Pomeranz for Ubaldo was a sign of insanity, I’d encourage you to take a step back from the ledge. When in the history of baseball has it been fair to judge a trade after four starts?

White has three big league outings under his belt and is about to make his debut for the Rockies on Tuesday. Pomeranz has zero big league outings to his credit, hasn’t pitched above Double-A and is now likely out for the year after an emergency appendectomy. Who can say whether that duo is the next coming of Curt Schilling-Randy Johnson, or whether they will ultimately flame out? No one knows.

Likewise, there is no way to tell yet whether Jimenez will evolve into the ace Cleveland is envisioning, or whether he will be a bust and set the organization back rather than propel it forward. Time is needed to judge this trade from both sides. So, for now, put the pitchforks and torches down before heading to the ballpark.

It might be far too early to judge this trade, but it’s never too early to look at trends.

Now, I’m not about to look at Jimenez’s four Cleveland starts (1-1, 7.29 ERA, 1.810 WHIP) and jump to all sorts of conclusions. Four starts is too small a sample size. What we can look to are his season as a whole compared to a year ago, or even at his three-year averages to see if there are any patterns.

First off, there is that popular topic of velocity. Jimenez’s pitch speed is down across the board from 2010. It is far to point out that he had early-season injury woes that took some toll, so the average will be down overall as a result. So in this case, let’s look at his Tribe outings.  So far, the velocity averages over four starts have remained down.

In 2010, Jimenez averaged 96.1 on fastballs, 86.6 for sliders, 78.6 for curves and 87.7 for changeups (via fangraphs.com). Overall this year, those numbers have been 93.5, 83.3, 76.7 and 86.3, respectively. In four starts with the Tribe (estimating here based on brooksbaseball.net PitchFX data), his averages have been roughly 93, 83, 78 and 86.

Jimenez and the Indians insist that the pitcher is healthy. Ubaldo even underwent an MRI exam that came back “squeaky clean” (manager Manny Acta’s words) before being traded to Cleveland. A drop in velocity can be common for pitchers as they age, so perhaps Jimenez is dealing with a transitional point in his career.

It is fair to point out that Jimenez has shown the ability to reach back and find something extra so far with the Indians. In Texas, he maxed out at 97.7 mph on his heater. He’s topped 95 mph in each start with Cleveland, too. Jimenez has said that pitch command has been the  biggest issue.

After Sunday’s start in Detroit, Jimenez said the curveball was the primary culprit. On average the breaking pitch had a horizontal break of 3.68 and a vertical break of -3.82. In his first start in Texas (Aug. 5), those numbers on the curve were 7.71/-5.64. In Ubaldo’s no-hitter last year (hey, that’s when a pitcher is at his best, right?), the curve break was 7.02/-6.12. The velo on the curve that day was about the same as it has been up to this point in his time with Cleveland.

Promising numbers can be found in Jimenez’s BB/9 (3.7 in both 2010 & 2011), K/9 (8.7 in ’10 & 8.8 in ’11) and K/BB (2.33 in ’10 & 2.37 in ’11) ratios. The difference has been in the H/9 average. That has climbed to 9.3 from 6.7 a year ago. As a result, Jimenez’s BaBIP has jumped to .325 this year compared to .274 last season.

So, what gives?

 Well, over the past few years, Ubaldo has been throwing fewer first-pitch strikes (56.5% in 2010 and 53.9% in 2011) and missing fewer bats. His swinging-strike percentage has steadily decreased from 9.6 to 9.1 to 7.7 in each of the past three seasons. Predictably, hitters’ contact percentage against him has climbed from 77.3 to 78.2 to 81.6 over the past three years.

If you throw fewer first-pitch strikes, you’re going to fall behind in the count more often. As a result, a pitcher can’t expand the zone as  much, needs to throw over the plate and now the hitters have the upper hand. Ubaldo has thrown 45% of his pitches in the strike zone this year, up from 44.8 in 2010.

It might also be worth noting that Jimenez has thrown lower percentages of fastballs (61.4 in 2010 and 60.6 in 2011), sliders (15.4 in ’10 and 13.3 in ’11) and curveballs (9.3 in ’10 and 7.8 in ’11) this year. Changeups, on the other hand, have increased. That offering was featured 13.8% of the time a year ago, but is now worked in 18.4% of the time. The slider has been virtually non-existent over Ubaldo’s last three outings.

Know that Indians general manager Chris Antonetti and his front-office team craves statistical information. They have access to all the numbers I just gave you, plus even more detailed data that I can’t just hop online and find. The Indians knew the risk involved when they dealt for Jimenez, but the team also knew the upside of the deal.

This much is clear: Jimenez is not  the same pitcher right now that he was a year ago. All the superlatives in the world can’t hide that reality. That said, Jimenez is still a bonafide star with ace potential. That much can’t be denied, either. The Tribe’s job now is to figure out what has gone wrong and what can be done to fix the problem.

In the meantime, keep your fingers off that panic button.

~JB

Do the math…

What’s it going to take for the Indians to come out on top in the race for the American League Central?

Obviously, there’s no way to predict what is going to take place over the next six weeks, but we can take a look at what has happened to this point… and then break out the abacus.

Inspired by the back page of one of the Chicago papers earlier this week, I decided to sit down and crunch some numbers to determine the Tribe’s chances of capturing the division crown. As things stand right now, the Tigers (66-58) are in first with a winning percentage of .532. If that holds, Detroit would finish 86-76.

That being the case, Cleveland would need to go 25-16 over its final 41 games in order to achieve 87 wins, taking the division title outright. Given the Indians’ win-loss output to this stage in the game, the team needs to catch fire and a few breaks in order to piece together a winning streak.

No matter how you slice it — based on what has happened so far — the Tribe does not look like an 87-win team. Entering tonight’s game in Detroit, Cleveland is 62-59 and on pace for an 83-win finish. Somehow, the Indians needs to find out how to pick up four extra wins.

Perhaps having five more home games than road games can help?

Consider that the Indians have gone 33-25 at home (.569 winning percentage) and 29-34 on the road (.460) this season. If those percentages hold down the stretch, Cleveland projects to go 13-10 at home and 8-10 on the road. In order to beat that 21-20 finish (making for 83 wins overall), the Tribe needs to pick up the pace on the road.

Maybe the remaining slate of opponents can help?

Consider that the Indians have gone 19-18 (.514) against the AL East, 22-21 (.512) against the AL Central and 10-13 (.435) against the AL West. The Tribe is done seeing the East, so it’s all Central (29) and West (12) from here on out. If the winning percentages hold, Cleveland projects to go 15-14 vs. the ALC and 5-7 vs. the ALW.

That would lead to an 82-win season. That’s not going to cut it.

OK, well, maybe then, we should look at the specific teams left on the schedule?

The Indians have games left against the Tigers (8), White Sox (8), Twins (7), Royals (6), Mariners (5), A’s (4) and Rangers (3). Up to this point this season, the Tribe’s winning percentages against those teams, in that same order, are as follows: .600, .300, .455, .667, 1.000, .667 and .143.

Again, if those percentages were to hold, the Indians would finish with a 22-19 record down the stretch, which would make for an 84-78 finish. That’s getting closer to the end goal, but still falls a bit short.

Obviously, all these winning percentages will move up and down over the next 41 games. There is no way that they will all remain fixed as they stand right now. But, this at least shows that the Indians need to find a few extra wins in order to exceed the projections based on production to this point.

Can they do it? Definitely. But it won’t be easy, especially with 18 games in the final 16 days as part of a 45-game in 44 days stretch to finish the year. Say this about this season’s Indians, though, they always seem to pull themselves back into the mix after it looks like they’ve hit a wall.

One solid winning streak is all it might take.

~JB

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