Here’s looking at U, kid
Ubaldo Jimenez is not the same pitcher he was with the Rockies in 2010. It’s not even close. And, yet, there are certain statistical marks being put up by Jimenez that are his best since that season, which played a major role in his perceived value at the Trade Deadline in 2011.
Jimenez is not the same pitcher he was for the Indians in 2012. It’s not even close. And, yet, there are certain statistical marks being put up by the pitcher that are nearly identical to a handful of areas that led to Jimenez’s worst season in the Majors.
That is an odd mixture: recreating some of the successes of 2010, while working around some of the failures of 2012. It is an approach that — at least for this first half — has helped Jimenez turn into a more reliable pitcher for Cleveland. He isn’t an ace like he once was, but he is keeping the Tribe in ballgames on a consistent basis.
As Jimenez’s pitch velocity decreased over the past three years, it was imperative that he learned how to adapt to working with diminished stuff. Other pitchers have made the successful transition from “thrower” to “pitcher” and that is what Jimenez needed to go through, too. What we are seeing in this first half is the result of a pitcher (finally) learning how to accept who he is now, and adjusting accordingly.
Let’s take a run through some of the numbers…
Overall through 18 starts: 7-4, 4.37 ERA, 94.2 IP, 92 K, 51 BB, 1.45 WHIP, .242 AVG (.738 OPS)
That is not the prettiest season line, but Jimenez is making it work. Maybe it’s a case of bending without breaking, and perhaps that is not sustainable over an entire season. For now, Jimenez has lived with the walks and home runs (13), while limiting the damage. It is also worth noting that his overall line is skewed by his first three outings, during which he went 0-2 with an 11.25 ERA in only 12 innings.
Since those first three turns, Jimenez has gone 7-2 with a 3.38 ERA over 82.2 innings, in which he has 81 strikeouts, 41 walks and a .231 average against in 15 starts. The right-hander has been even better in his most recent nine starts, during which he’s gone 4-1 with a 2.88 ERA across 50 innings, which include 45 strikeouts, 29 walks and a .241 opponents’ average. He’s been consistent throughout in terms of BABIP: .290 in 1st 3 starts, .286 in 15 starts since then, and .284 in his latest nine outings.
This would be a good time, out of fairness, to point out a couple of things that have worked in Jimenez’s favor to this point. The Indians have averaged 5.2 runs of support per start, representing the 14th-best rate of support among qualifying American League starting pitchers. The Indians, as a result of that support and his improvement, have a .667 (12-6) winning percentage (ninth-best in AL) on days the Big U takes the hill. Also, it’s worth noting that Jimenez is 2-0 with a 3.02 ERA (eight starts) against sub-.500 teams and 5-4 with a 5.58 ERA (10 starts) against clubs with a winning record (as of this writing).
Jimenez’s success this year comes amidst some continued struggles in some key areas:
- He has given up 1.2 homers per nine innings and issued 4.8 walks per nine innings. Last season, when Jimenez ended 9-17 with a 5.40 ERA, those rates were 1.3 HR/9 and 4.8 BB/9, so almost exactly the same. His 12.4-percent walk rate is the highest percentage among American League starting pitchers.
- Jimenez is actually averaging fewer innings per start (5.3 innings, ranking 61st among AL starters) this season than he did in 2012 (5.7). His average of 4.21 pitches per plate appearance (second-highest in AL) is the highest mark of his career. He’s averaging 23 plate appearances per start, 96.8 pitches per outing and he’s needing 6.1 pitches on average to record an out.
- Jimenez’s fastball velocity over the past four years is as follows, with MLB rank among qualifying pitchers included: 96.1 mph in 2010 (first), 93.5 mph in 2011 (10th), 92.5 mph in 2012 (23rd), 91.4 mph in 2013 (42nd).
- Jimenez has only logged a quality start (at least six innings and three earned runs or fewer) in 33-percent of his starts, a rate that ranks 63rd among qualifying AL starters.
So, how then, is Jimenez achieving his recent success?
The right-hander has most notably experienced a drastic improvement against left-handed hitters. Last year, lefties posted a .271/.375/.479 slash line against Jimenez, who has altered his approach some this year. He is relying more heavily on a splitter, which he didn’t use at his peak with the Rockies. Jimenez has reduced the number of two-strike sinkers to lefties, leaning more on that split and a four-seamer (according to brooksbaseball.net) when ahead in the count or looking to put the hitter away. The result so far has been a .229/.298/.414 slash line for left-handed hitters.
Right-handed hitters have dropped to .252/.380/.388 this year from .270/.354/.424 a year ago. Jimenez has increased his slider usage early in counts and reduced sinker usage with two strikes. Remember, that sinker was Jimenez’s main weapon back in his prime with Colorado. With its diminished velocity, he’s worked other pitches in more often. Jimenez has also cut down the number of curveballs he’s thrown this season.
Per fangraphs.com, here are Jimenez’s pitch use percentages from 2012 compared to 2013: fastball (two/four) — 57.5 (2012)/53.7 (2013); slider — 15.8/22.3; curveball — 8.8/3.4; changeup — 13.0/10.2; splitter — 4.9/10.3.
With all of that in mind, here’s a glace at some of the results:
- Jimenez is striking out an average of 8.7 hitters per nine innings, which is his best rate since 2010.
- His 22.3 strikeout percentage is also his best mark since 2010 (23.9), and 10th-best in the American League
- Jimenez’s extra-base hit percentage of 7.3 is his best since 2010 (6.2)
- The pitcher’s 62-percent balls-in-play rate is the best of his career, which has a 65-percent rate overall.
- His strike percentage (61) is better than his career rate (60).
- Jimenez’s 31-percent called strike rate is the best of his career (29 percent overall).
- Hitters are fouling off 29-percent of his pitches, marking the best rate of his career and 12th-best rate in the AL.
- Jimenez’s 29-percent 0-2-count rate is best of his career and 10th in the American League.
- Jimenez has given up 13 home runs, but 10 of the blasts have been solo shots.
- He is inducing swings at pitches outside the strike zone 25.8 percent of the time (23.2 percent in 2012).
- Contact rate inside the strike zone is down to 86.2 percent from 88.9 percent in 2012.
- Jimenez’s contact rate overall is down to 80.4 percent from 82.4 percent in 2012.
- Hitters have a .269 average vs. Jimenez’s fastball compared to .319 a year ago.
- Hitters have a .171 average vs. the pitcher’s slider compared to .273 in 2012.
- Jimenez’s 8 percent swing-and-miss rate is his best since 2010, and up from 7 percent in 2012.
- His 57 percent first-pitch strike rate is the best of his career, and up from 52.4 in 2012.
That’s a whole lot of good mixed in with the bad. By cleaning up, and speeding up, his delivery, and altering his pitch selection, Jimenez is getting more swings and misses, and forcing hitters to chase more pitches, even though his average pitch velocity is at a career low. The walk rate remains high, but chalk it up to a case of being effectively wild for now. As Indians manager Terry Francona said on Tuesday, hitters have a hard time honing in on anything with the way Jimenez has pitched to this point.
What will be interesting to see is whether Jimenez can keep this up over a 30-35 start season, or if the high pitch counts, short outings and bloated walk rate will come back to bite him, and the Tribe, in the second half.
For now, it seems like Jimenez has accepted who he is these days as a pitcher, and he has found a way to make it work.