A few weeks ago in one of my FanGraphs chats, I was asked who had a better chance of rediscovering his old self, between Scott Kazmir and Ubaldo Jimenez. I made the same sort of crack any one of us would’ve made at the time, like how you’d respond to the idea of Rich Harden or Nick Johnson staying healthy. Kazmir or Jimenez getting on track was practically unthinkable, or so I assumed, before Kazmir turned it on and Jimenez turned it on also. Now the Indians are tied with the Tigers for first place in the Central, with a suspect pitching staff looking a little less suspect than projected.
Jimenez has been one of the more perplexing starters in baseball over the years, thanks in large part to the fact that he used to throw a hundred miles per hour. He doesn’t do that anymore, and people want to know why. He ran into some unsightly struggles, and people want to know why. Jimenez tried to win himself a Cy Young in 2010, and he hasn’t been the same pitcher since, and these sorts of guys are always fascinating. Proposed explanations for Jimenez’s decline have concentrated on his mechanics, which sounds insightful until you realize, well, yeah, of course. But Jimenez’s mechanics have always been unusual and complicated. So they’ve drawn attention.
It was last year that Jimenez bottomed out. His walks went up, his strikeouts went down, and he shifted more of the defensive burden from the infield to the outfield. Gone were the days of Jimenez being any sort of consistently effective, and in attempts to get him going again, the Indians got Jimenez working on some mechanical tweaks. If they worked, they didn’t work for very long, and Jimenez came into 2013 a complete unknown. The assumption was that he would struggle once more, but his successful days hadn’t been completely forgotten. Whenever you have a guy who used to be good, there’ll be hope that he could be good again, so long as he figures things out. There’s been near-constant emphasis on getting Jimenez back to what he was in 2010.
Jimenez had consecutive disastrous starts in April, against the Yankees and the Red Sox. It’s what he’s done since that’s raised eyebrows. In four starts — three against at least decent teams — he’s whiffed 24 while walking just seven. He’s thrown nearly two-thirds of his pitches for strikes, and he’s avoided solid contact. It’s going to be a long time before Jimenez is considered trustworthy, but what we have to do now is wonder just how broken Jimenez might still be. Because while his current ERA still sucks, his other numbers are a hell of a lot better than they were a season ago.
In fact, in a lot of ways, you could say they look familiar. The Indians have wanted Jimenez to be the guy he was for a time in Colorado. I’m not going to pretend this table isn’t a little misleading, but it also contains a lot of truth:
Compared to his best season, in 2013 Jimenez has generated as many strikeouts. He’s thrown as many strikes, he’s generated as many grounders, and he’s actually worked ahead in the count a little more often. He hasn’t worked as deeply in games, and he hasn’t thrown his pitches at the same velocity, but if you want to be encouraged by 2013 Ubaldo Jimenez, doing so isn’t a stretch. There’s a lot of beauty beneath the less beautiful.
So much has been written about mechanical adjustments that might get Jimenez back to throwing in the upper 90s. Actually, this year Jimenez’s fastball velocity is down a tick, and last year it was down a tick from 2011, and in 2011 it was down a few ticks from 2010. At his best, Jimenez averaged 96. This year he’s barely averaged 91. But getting back to that old velocity isn’t the goal for Jimenez; the goal should be getting back to pitching well pretty often, and it seems like he might be on the right path. He’s never been particularly able to spot his pitches where he wants. He’s been able to make batters miss, regardless, and now he’s doing that again.
What’s changed this time? The Indians worked to implement a few new tweaks. They wanted to cut out a pause in Jimenez’s delivery, and they wanted to aim his front shoulder more at the plate. Below, you can see Jimenez throw a fastball from 2012, and you can see him throw a fastball from a recent start:
I am not an expert on pitching mechanics. But I can tell you that these two screenshots are different:
Above, Jimenez in 2012. Below, Jimenez in 2013. Look at how much further he’s reaching back up top. Look at how much higher his front arm is down below. Jimenez has shaved 1.3 seconds off his average pace. His rate of pitches in the zone is up, and his strike rate is up more than three percentage points relative to last year. I’d be lying if I declared to you Jimenez’s altered mechanics have driven his improvement. Anyone who asserts a specific correlation between delivery and performance is probably misleading you. Things aren’t that simple. But the Indians wanted Jimenez to achieve a more consistent release point, so he could have more consistent command. Via Brooks Baseball, I think you can see hints of greater release-point consistency:
The grouping in 2013 is tighter than it was in 2012. I’m not sure this has any analytic value, but Texas Leaguers has been down and I wasn’t sure what else to do. The numbers say that Jimenez has been locating better. The PITCHf/x data suggests that Jimenez has had a more consistent arm slot.
Jimenez isn’t all the way back to being what he was in 2010, and he probably never will be, since he’ll probably never again throw that fast. But, statistically, there are a lot of comparison between Jimenez’s 2010 and 2013 to date. At the least, there’s reason to hope that Jimenez might have things figured out enough to be a season-long starting pitcher on a team thinking about the playoffs. He’ll never pepper the strike zone, so he’ll never be one to limit his free passes. Even with tweaked mechanics, he’s still flying open a bit, and that’s probably just part of the Ubaldo Jimenez package. But, compared to last year, the strikeouts are back. Compared to last year, the grounders are back. Jimenez’s ERA says he’s more bad than good. We don’t talk that much about ERA around these parts.