Swing Starters: Ubaldo Jimenez, is there anything there?
When the Indians, first acquired Ubaldo Jimenez I was a gung ho believer in his abilities at the top of the rotation and thought that his struggles early in 2011 where just sample size issues, nothing to be concerned about. This is why I could never be in a front office, as I could not have been more wrong as what we have witnessed so far with Jimenez has been a complete unraveling of talent as a major-league starter.
I was recently trying to think of a pitcher whose career arc was somewhat comparable to that of Ubaldo’s and then realized that perhaps the most reminiscent starter was rotation mate Scott Kazmir. The only difference being that Kazmir had a more sustained stretch of success prior to his disappearing act. However, in terms of velocity based success, and the following evaporation of a high strikeout starter to back end level stuff they are eerily similar.
So, today I will attempt to follow the same path as site editor Jim Pete, and accept that as scary as it sounds Jimenez’s effectiveness will have a large impact on this season. Coming in to this look at Jimenez, I was of the volition that his failure was almost inevitable, that in all likelihood we would see either Carrasco or Bauer in Ubaldo’s spot by early-mid May.
Thank heavens we have that depth. In fact, if I was a betting man, or at least more compulsive about it I would put more money on Kazmir being in the rotation by the end of June then Jimenez. Digressing, I will be taking a look if there are any signs that Ubaldo can perform at anywhere near league average this season in order to keep an above-average lineup in ballgames.
Mechanics: Pitching coach Mickey Callaway entered his first offseason and spring training as Tribe pitching coach with a collection of the biggest reclamation projects in baseball. From Justin, to Kazmir to Ubaldo and even the pitching savant/eccentric Bauer, he has had his work cut out for him. Ubaldo though has to be the greatest challenge as getting a 3.90 ERA out of Jimenez would be akin to nothing less than Michelangelo’s work in the Sistine Chapel.
Moving to approach, Callaway and Jimenez have spent the offseason trying to create a smoother and more repeatable delivery. I have not been able to isolate or articulate the specific changes; all that matters is that it helps him throw more strikes.
|Year||First Pitch Strike %||Swing/Miss Strike %|
*Note on the data, I did not include Jimenez’s 2006 or 2007 seasons as the sample size was a little smaller than I wished to include.
I included first pitch strike percentage rather than overall strike percentage because I believe it more accurately depicts his control issues that have surfaced during his time with the Tribe. Secondly, because any Indians fan who watched a majority of his starts came to this conclusion prior to the data which just serves to validate this growing issue for Ubaldo.
Many pitching coaches say that strike one is the most important pitch in baseball and I must agree. This idea has been stressed in camp this season as Callaway and Francona kept track and posted the standings for first pitch strikes in the clubhouse. They are important because it allows the pitcher to be more aggressive deeper in the at bat. This was a huge deal for Jimenez as it seemed like he was behind in counts all last season. The issue for him has only been magnified, however, as his stuff has decreased to the point where if he is behind in the count he can’t get away with throwing 92 MPH fastballs by a hitter anymore, unlike when he was pushing 97 MPH.
The decrease in first pitch strikes has been legitimate and if these changes Callaway is attempting can help to fix this number and overall control that would be a big step in the right direction.
Data: As to the swing and miss strike percentage, that decrease is clearly linked to the change in fastball velocity as well as one qualification. (Obviously swing and miss strikes in the National League are slightly inflated compared to the American League by facing the opposing pitcher two to three times a game.)
|Year||Avg Four-Seam Velocity|
|Career Average||95.1 MPH|
The decrease in velocity has been a huge part of Ubaldo’s rapid decline and it appears that his velocity decline has finally flat lined for this season as radar guns at the end of camp had him at about 92 MPH. Still, this velocity correction over the last season while damaging is not destructive enough that it has to be career ending.
This just requires Ubaldo to make some adaptations, the first of which is control. He simply has to throw more strikes, better quality strikes and raise his first pitch strike percentage. On a side note, the movement on his fastball over the past seasons has remained pretty solid, which while making it a little more challenging to improve location; it means he isn’t just throwing it in there flat.
Defense: Last stat sheet I promise:
|Year||Line Drive %||Ground Ball %||Fly ball %|
While Jimenez began his career as a groundball pitcher with that heavy fastball, his last three seasons the fly ball rate has slowly been increasing with it popping last season. While I would like to see this increase, flat line, or trend back towards ground balls, there really is no case to be made that that will occur.
This is where the defense comes in: quite simply the Indians have an incredibly improved outfield defense. While Brantley has become a solid centerfielder, putting a two-time Gold Glove recipient with immense range and defensive value in center is an upgrade. Even further, Stubbs was an above-average centerfielder who is moving to right to replace one of the worst rated right fielders in baseball last year in Shin-Soo Choo (according to defensive metrics his zone rating he was at best abysmal). Lastly, the Tribe shifted the well-ranged Brantley to left field covering the abyss that was on different occasions Shelley Duncan, Johnny Damon and even Jose Lopez a few times.
If Jimenez’s fly ball rates remain within one deviation on either side it is clear that the improved outfield defense will have a legitimate positive effect on his output as a starter.
Confidence: Quick hitter here: Jimenez has spoken this spring that he finally feels comfortable again which I hope is correct. Obviously last season he was visibly frustrated and uncomfortable on the mound. A confident and relaxed starter will always throw more strikes and gain effectiveness as it creates a guy who can execute his mechanics more easily and without reticence. If the ever positive Terry Francona can’t milk some value out of Jimenez this season I am not sure anyone can.
One thing is clear, Jimenez will never be the same guy he was in Colorado and that will always be one of the black marks on Antonetti’s resume. However, could Ubaldo somehow serve as a solid innings-eating, four/five starter? Maybe, be it through these mechanical changes, improved outfield defense or a more comfortable and positive approach, Ubaldo just might have something left.
On this matter I can’t find a way to be any more than cautiously optimistic.
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I do take it as a compliment that someone thinks enough of my posts to an imposter, however.
Ubaldo's WAR last year=0.1
Even with them both vastly under performing still better than Ubaldo and we ate $4.5 million. They paid rookie contracts. Sounds like at least a brown spot/smudge to me.