Just What is One Getting in Ubaldo Jimenez?

Let’s grant that there’s pretty much always something to not like about a given free agent. Baseball has a very limited number of truly extraordinary players, and those players seldom become free agents, at least before they start getting old. So any free agent will always have a more optimistic perception, and a more pessimistic perception. But no matter what could be said about other years, it’s felt like there’s been a lot of uncertainty within this year’s free-agent-starting-pitcher class. Teams didn’t know whether they could trust Matt Garza‘s elbow. A year ago, Ervin Santana wasn’t good. A year ago, Ubaldo Jimenez wasn’t good. Masahiro Tanaka has never pitched in the States. Hell, the surest thing might be A.J. Burnett, and he’s old, and he just became an actual free agent the other day. For effect, let’s repeat that the surest thing within a given player pool might be A.J. Burnett.

Jimenez is probably the most mysterious out of everybody. He’s been an ace, he’s been a wreck, and he’s been everything in between. He’s not old, but he doesn’t throw like he did when he was young. Statistically, he’s coming off a bounceback season, having posted the same adjusted FIP and the same adjusted xFIP as Zack Greinke. The strikeouts were there, even if the old velocity wasn’t. On the surface, Jimenez and Santana look similar, in that they’re asking suitors to buy in to surprisingly successful 2013s. That makes them kind of difficult to trust. With Jimenez, though, it’s even more difficult. With Jimenez, it isn’t about all of 2013.

To just get right to the point: Jimenez made his 24th start on August 17th, in Oakland. He finished with a 4.00 ERA and a 4.33 FIP, and he’d averaged about 1.8 strikeouts per walk. Three of five pitches had gone for strikes. Batters had reached against him at a .335 clip. The average AL starter last year threw 63.5% of pitches for strikes. Jimenez had reached or exceeded that rate in five games out of 24. Jimenez looked better than he did the season before, but he remained ever so inconsistent. He certainly wasn’t putting himself in position to cash in on the free-agent market.

There were eight starts left. Over them, Jimenez ran a 1.66 ERA and a 1.28 FIP, and he averaged about seven strikeouts per walk. Two of three pitches had gone for strikes. Batters reached against him at a .270 clip, while slugging .307. Practically overnight, Jimenez went from source of frustration to dominant ace, and while maybe you could say the signs were there, that’s only true because of Jimenez’s background. There was no real indication he was about to turn the corner, when he did.

So, with Jimenez, it isn’t about believing in a bounceback full season. It’s about believing in a remarkable one-fourth of one full season, a fourth in which Jimenez threw a great deal more strikes even though he improved his rate of pitches in the zone by all of one percentage point. Usually I don’t like to break things down in this way — a season is a season, and the numbers at the end ought to be representative — but Jimenez only started to look like a guy a team would actually want in the second half of last August. That makes him all the more difficult to forecast.

Interestingly, Jimenez’s improvement coincided with a tremendous increase in innings caught by Yan Gomes instead of Carlos Santana. Gomes is, statistically and visibly, the better receiver, and down the stretch Jimenez was able to pitch to a slightly bigger strike zone. This made some difference, but it doesn’t explain all of the difference, and some of it could’ve been because of Jimenez himself instead of the catcher behind the plate.

There was also, for Jimenez, a slight late uptick in velocity. No matter what coaches might otherwise suggest, velocity is important, and this presumably helped Jimenez with his results, but his late velocities were also comparable to what he was throwing the season before, when he was a mess. In 2012, Jimenez threw 115 pitches at least 95 miles per hour. In 2013, that count dropped to 43, and 15 of those pitches came before Jimenez’s late-season breakthrough. This factor shouldn’t be overstated.

The thing I keep coming back to is the strength of Jimenez’s home-stretch schedule. Over a full season, we expect that the quality of opposition will more or less even out to approximate league-average. Over littler stretches, players can go through hell or skip through the flowers. Here, in order, are Jimenez’s final eight opponents from last August and September:

  • Twins
  • @Braves
  • Orioles
  • Royals
  • @White Sox
  • Astros
  • White Sox
  • @Twins

The Braves didn’t have a bad lineup, but in this particular game, they had to bat a pitcher, and they didn’t start Jason Heyward or Freddie Freeman. The Orioles didn’t have a bad lineup, yet against them Jimenez lasted just 90 pitches, with 62% strikes. The White Sox had a bad lineup, and Jimenez faced them twice. The Twins had a bad, strikeout-prone lineup, and Jimenez faced them twice. Joe Mauer didn’t play. Josh Willingham didn’t play the second game. The Astros had a bad lineup, and Jason Castro didn’t play. The Royals had a pretty bad lineup. Down the stretch, I’d say Jimenez faced one real challenge. He did fine in that game, but he excelled in the others.

Which makes it difficult to separate the pitching component from the hitting component. Without question, Jimenez deserves credit for shutting down his opponents, even if said opponents weren’t very good. They were all, if nothing else, selected to be major leaguers. But there’s reason to be wary, reason to be uneasy. Jimenez’s biggest swinging-strike game down the stretch came against a depleted lineup in an NL ballpark. His next two biggest swinging-strike games came against two pretty miserable Twins lineups. I feel comfortable saying Jimenez was pitching better. I also feel comfortable guessing he had a little help. It wasn’t his zone rate that shot up. It was his O-Swing%, which exceeded his previous career high. That could be the hallmark of some undisciplined hitters.

Jimenez, naturally, got attention for his turnaround. Here’s a thing. Here’s another thing. Here’s a third thing. Most people chose to focus on his improving mechanics, and his mechanics had long been a work in progress. They still are, and always will be. The pitch is that Jimenez has put it all back together again, and from this point forward he’s ready to be highly successful. Indeed, maybe he found something out. But this is a case where the numbers can say only so much — this is one free agent whose pursuit is going to come down to scouting and hope.

Ubaldo Jimenez is a free agent who was an inconsistent mess before closing 2013 with a stretch of eight magnificent starts. Though he didn’t pound the zone, he did generate a lot more strikes, throwing mostly to a different catcher than before. His stuff looked a lot like his regular stuff, his mechanics hadn’t been completely reworked, and his opposition down the stretch was bad. One of the two good lineups he faced didn’t have two of its better hitters, and it had a pitcher in it. Good luck trying to figure this all out. The answer probably isn’t on the Ubaldo Jimenez FanGraphs player page.

You’d think the safe thing would be to follow the strikeouts. Jimenez just racked up a bunch of strikeouts, and he’s likely to be something of a strikeout pitcher. But Ubaldo Jimenez as a free agent, most assuredly, isn’t a safe thing. He’s a mysterious thing, even more than most, and I don’t know if it’s even possible to approach him with confidence. In time he’ll sign a contract, handed his way by crossed fingers.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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