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Swing Starters: Ubaldo Jimenez, is there anything there?

Swing Starters: Ubaldo Jimenez, is there anything there?
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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 %
2008 56.80% 8.90%
2009 55.80% 9.60%
2010 56.50% 9.10%
2011 53.50% 7.50%
2012 52.40% 7.00%
Total 55.10% 8.50%

*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
2007 96.7 MPH
2008 95.4 MPH
2009 96.0 MPH
2010 95.8 MPH
2011 93.9 MPH
2012 92.5 MPH
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 %
2008 17.6 54.4 28.0
2009 19.5 52.5 27.9
2010 16.2 48.8 35.0
2011 19.6 47.2 33.3
2012 23.4 38.4 38.2
Career Average 19.0 48.2 32.8

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.

Interact with Michael by email at  michael.hattery@gmail.com and on Twitter @MichaelHattery

User Comments

The Real Common Cents
April 3, 2013 - 12:56 PM EDT
The most recent "Common Cents" post wasn't by the true Common Cents. This has happened quite a few times already.

I do take it as a compliment that someone thinks enough of my posts to an imposter, however.
Tony
April 3, 2013 - 12:21 PM EDT
It doesn't matter what prospects become after a trade. The point is, at the time of the deal, the Indians could have packaged those two together as the centerpiece for almost *any* deal. That's the catch. They had tons of value at the time, and now obviously don't. They were currency to complete a deal that the Indians thought would get them an anchor for the rotation and it did not work that way. It is a black mark for that reason in that they could have used them to get someone else that performed better (several other cost controlled starters have been traded since).
Mike H
April 3, 2013 - 12:11 PM EDT
Drew Pomeranz + Alex White's WAR=1.3
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.
Roger
April 3, 2013 - 11:57 AM EDT
If the big U functions as 3rd or 4th starter i might be inclined to work with his agent about the 8 million dollar option for 2014 if 200 innings is the 3/4 threshold then why not just sign his if the numbers return to avg. If not by june 1 he maybe gone. we should know within 10 to 12 starts where Ubaldo is. if somewhere between 2010 and 2011-12 then he is servicable at 8 million from a pure budgetary standpoint. However the 92mph is scary that is about the rigthhanded average in mlb i believe i know he has ever legal y pitch developed his ole number 1 (4 seemer) is his numero uno pitch. at 92 mph it better not be the best offering he has.
Mike H.
April 3, 2013 - 11:54 AM EDT
Wasted assets, while White and Pomeranz have failed as well and I understand what you are saying, they where in all effect wasted assets. There were signs that Jimenez was declining, or 2010 was an simply outlier. Secondly cash, Indians paid him $4.5 million for a half a win last season according to wins above replacement. I think it is a black mark that doesn't look so bad because of Pomeranz and White's failure at the time. You can't attempt to argue that Antonetti foresaw a Pomeranz and White failing and thus made the deal. We have just been lucky that they haven't made us look bad so far.
Common Cents
April 3, 2013 - 11:53 AM EDT
Stand PROUD Antonetti, Usucko isn't a black mark on your record because White and Pomeranz suck too!! Chalk that deal as a win!!!
Steve
April 3, 2013 - 11:44 AM EDT
I, like you, was excited when the Indians initially acquired Jimenez. That excitement has since deteriorated, but I'm encouraged by his strong spring. Needless to say, tonight will be an exciting game to watch simply for the fact that we get our first glimpse at the Big U.
Mitch
April 3, 2013 - 11:43 AM EDT
How can you say Ubaldo is a black mark on Antonetti's record when Pomeranz and White have failed as well.

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