Explaining Ubaldo

Ubaldo Jimenez has been one of the more perplexing starters in baseball over the years. Coming over in a July trade deadline deal in 2011, the Indians received a starter with declining velocity on his fastball but under fiscal control for several more seasons. The high risk trade gave the Indians a potential ace who's contract was small market friendly. The goal was for him to to help push a young, contending team into the postseason in 2011. Little did anybody know that two seasons later, he would finally be living up to the expectations.

When he first came up with the Rockies, he used to throw really hard, as his fastball would top in the mid to upper 90's. He doesn’t do that anymore, and fans want to know why. Jimenez tried to win himself a Cy Young award in 2010, and he was not the same pitcher afterwards, at least until this year's all star break. Proposed explanations for Jimenez’s decline have concentrated on his mechanics, which sounds insightful, but Jimenez’s mechanics have always been unusual and complicated. 

It was last season that Jimenez seemed to have bottomed out. His walks went up, his strikeouts went down, and he shifted more of the defensive burden from the infield to the outfield, giving up more fly balls than he ever did in his career. Gone were the days of Jimenez being any sort of consistently effective, and in attempts to get him going again, the Indians got Jimenez to work on some mechanical tweaks in the latter part of 2012. 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. When a small market team has a guy who used to be good, there will be hope that he could be good again, so long as he figures things out. That's one way that an organization can best maximize its available budget: take risks on players who show(ed) flashes of greatness but pay them below market value. Because of this, there’s been near-constant emphasis on getting Jimenez back to what he was in 2010. Down the stretch, the emphasis has become a reality.

Jimenez began this season's campaign with consecutive disastrous starts, against the Yankees and the Red Sox. It’s what he did since that’s raised eyebrows. In his next four starts — three against at least decent teams — he whiffed 24 while walking just seven. He threw nearly two-thirds of his pitches for strikes, and he avoided solid contact, something he could not do in 2012. 

The Indians have wanted Jimenez to be the guy he was for a time in Colorado. This current table contains a bit of truth and little bit of flair as well:

Year K% (BB+HBP)% GB% xFIP Strike% BABIP Ahead%
2010 24% 11% 49% 3.60 61% .271 35%
2013 24% 12% 44% 3.91 62% .296 38%

Compared to his best season, in 2013 Jimenez has generated as many strikeouts. He’s thrown as many strikes, he’s generated almost 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 the 2013 Ubaldo Jimenez, he has given the fans and organization more proof than ever.

This season, 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 as alluded to earlier. This year he’s barely averaged 91. But getting back to that old velocity isn’t the goal for Jimenez anymore; in fact, his recent success this season has occurred despite the fact his velocity has dropped so much in 2010.  No,the goal has been to get back to pitching well pretty often and on a more consistent basis, and it seems like he might be on the right path. 

What’s changed this time around? The Indians worked to implement a few new tweaks. Thanks to pitching coach Mickey Callaway, the Indians organization has worked hard to improve the artistry of his delivery, not detract from it. They wanted to cut out a pause in Jimenez’s delivery, and they wanted to aim his front shoulder more at the plate. 

These two screen shots, courtesy of MLB.com, show the aforementioned difference is his delivery. 

Jimenez in 2012 (first) and 2013 (second):

ubaldo2012ubaldo2013

Look at how much further he’s reaching back up top. Look at how much higher his front arm is down below. According to Baseball Info Solutions, Jimenez has shaved 1.3 seconds off his average pace in his delivery. His rate of pitches in the zone is up, and his strike rate is up more than three percentage points relative to last year. The act of pitching is such a dynamic art that asserting a specific correlation between delivery and performance is probably misleading. 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:

ubaldorelease

The grouping in 2013 is tighter than it was in 2012. Both the numbers and charts say that Jimenez has been locating better. The PITCHf/x data suggests that Jimenez has had a more consistent arm slot. In my opinion, this has been the key reason why Jimenez has bounced back to have a good season this year. Again, credit must be given to Mickey Callaway and the coaching staff by not tinkering with Jimenez's unique delivery. 

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. If he has finally turned the corner from being a thrower and has turned into a pitcher, he will be extremely valuable these last three weeks of the regular season, especially with Masterson out.

Also, his financial health after this season and the rest of his career also depends on how valuable he is down the stretch. 

Usually, that's all it takes.

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