The Orioles Bet on the New Ubaldo Jimenez

Ubaldo Jimenez isn’t what he used to be. His pitches have all declined in velocity and bite since his peak in Colorado, and his Cleveland numbers, both superficial and underlying, look pale in comparison. And this with a move out of one of the most extreme hitter’s parks in the big leagues to one more friendly to pitchers.

But 2013 was a story of redemption for Jimenez, and his adjustment to the current state of his stuff was a big part of that. The Orioles believe in that adjustment, hoping it will stick enough to make the four-year, $50 million investment they made in him look wise.

First, let’s look at how stark the decline in his stuff had become. Starting with his age-25 season in 2009, here are the swinging strike metrics on his primary pitches over the past few seasons.

The underlying cause may have been velocity drop. All of his pitches generally dropped in velocity over the same time period, most notably his four-seamer, which dropped from 96+ to 91+. Command of those pitches is always an issue with Jimenez, but that seems come and go as it pleases, and there’s no linear loss of command as there is with swinging strike stuff.

Pitchers sometimes regain stuff and velocity, but at 30, that seems unlikely for Ubaldo going forward. So it’s probably good news that the change in Ubaldo last season was *not* one about regaining stuff or velocity. His change-up (14% whiffs), slider (11%) and curve (7%) — all pitches that used to be plus in terms of whiffs — are still all below average when compared to the league.

Somehow Jimenez arrested a three-year decline in swinging strike and strikeout rates last season, though. Without regaining velocity or bite on his arsenal. Hey look at that, he threw his split-finger more than ever. Maybe we should all learn the split-finger like Jimenez did.

The narrative isn’t super clean. Jimenez has had a split-finger for a long time. But he hasn’t used it like he did in 2013 ever before. Over his career going into 2013, he’d thrown the pitch 3% of the time according to BrooksBaseball. Last year that number was 14%. Add a pitch with a 17% whiff rate, even if that whiff rate is basically league average, and you’ll see more strikeouts.

It’s a trend you’ll see across his arsenal. By any classification system on this site, he’s thrown the fastball less as he’s aged. We know there’s some evidence pitchers use their fastball less as they age, and Jimenez puts this into focus — as the fastball becomes less effective, you have to throw your junk more.

Of course there’s evidence that heavy breaking pitch usage leads to more injuries, but when you’re buying a 30-year-old pitcher, that’s just part of the price. If this new version of Jimenez sticks, he is a pitcher that has manged 30+ starts since he became a regular. And past disabled list stints are still the best predictor of future disabled list stints.

There’s some evidence that this will be a good fit for the Orioles. Recently, Jimenez’ ground-ball rates have been mediocre, but his career number (47.6%) and increased reliance on off-speed stuff suggest that there’s some bounce in those numbers. If he can garner grounders, the Orioles are ready. They had the fourth-best batting average on balls in play allowed and the second-best team Ultimate Zone Rating in the American league. They shifted their infield defense more than anyone last year with 470 shifts according to Jeff Zimmerman‘s piece in The Hardball Times Annual. Once Manny Machado is healthy again, this is a defense that can gobble up ground balls.

With a little bit of help from his defenders, and perhaps even more split-fingers in the future, this new Ubaldo Jimenez could easily put up a 2014 season similar to the one he had in 2013. Even with aggressive aging projections, that probably makes this contract a value. And maybe all it took was throwing the fastball less and the split-finger more.

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Graphs: Baseball, Roto, Beer, brats (OK, no graphs for that...yet), repeat. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris.

73 Responses to “The Orioles Bet on the New Ubaldo Jimenez”

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  1. BSLJeffLong says:

    There’s a lot of evidence that Ubaldo is now pitching smarter, using his stuff in a way that optimizes potential outcomes (sinkers early or when behind, breaking balls when ahead to get whiffs) which likely helps him overcome declining velocity, etc.

    Also, say what you want about his stats, but he has only posted a FIP over 3.70 once in the past 5 seasons (his disastrous 2012). That’s a pretty solid track record.

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  2. Cannon says:

    The problem with this guy is not the drop in velocity. His problem is plain and simple lack of want and desire. If he played in the NFL he would be crucified by the media and fans alike for taking time off or not giving it his all.

    His “success” last year was due primarily to being in a contract year and was looking ahead to FA and getting paid. Now that he has moved to the AL East I don’t believe he is worth a slot in shallow leagues as I believe his mirage will be exposed.

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    • bdhudson says:


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    • Franco says:

      Hey, it’s a sports radio caller!

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    • Cannon says:

      Not really sure why all the negatives….people put an extreme amount of effort on numbers, as I do too, but hardly any effort on a mans mind or mindset.

      When he was with COL he was actually skipped in the rotation several times and was a distraction to the team. His level of talent doesn’t just get traded for nothing.

      He goes to CLE and sulks there for what 2.5-3.5 seasons (look at the overall numbers), and then suddenly with 1/2 of a season to go (look at the splits) decides to turn it on and WHY…..contract.

      Now he is an aging pitcher, losing velocity, and quite possibly on his last contract. What makes you think he is going to be the same player he was in the 2nd half of the season last year. He will not, because he has nothing to work towards…..just get paid and go out there and go through the motions.

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      • bdhudson says:

        Not sure how he got skipped in the rotation in COL, having made 32 or more starts every year since he came up.

        I think the downvotes stem from an overwhelming lack of evidence…

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      • bdhudson says:

        He also didn’t “just get traded for nothing.” Colorado got a massive (at the time) return on that deal.

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      • senorpogo says:

        If he could just turn it on like that why doesn’t he do it all the time and make $100M+? Doesn’t cost him anything to play better

        What really changed was Mickey Callaway coming in as pitching coach and making changes to Ubaldo’s mechanics.

        As for the splits, as I pointed out below, Ubaldo pitched better than average against winning teams and dominated lesser teams. This is probably true for most good pitchers. There are plenty of question marks around this guy, but to write off his 2013 as some fluke seems to be really missing the point.

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        • jcxy says:

          You’re wrong that it doesn’t “cost” him anything to be better all of the time. Why doesn’t everyone who takes the LSATs study like crazy and get 170+? Why doesn’t every medical student drop 250+ on Step 1? Because there is plenty of cost to devoting a significant amount of time to your craft, whether it intellectual or athletic, no matter the future benefits. It’s also why we have “So-and-so is in the best shape of their life” articles every year in the Spring. Everyone has their priorities, incentives, and distractions.

          The problem with suggesting that Ubaldo falls under this heading is simply that we don’t have evidence of it.

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      • senorpogo says:

        From Indians beat writer Paul Hoynes…

        “The Indians never had a problem with Jimenez’s effort and personality. He worked tirelessly to correct his flaws on the mound and caused none of the clubhouse tension that swirled around him in Colorado.”

        Sounds like work ethic was not a problem.

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      • dollar says:

        The contract year idea seems as good as any other. I guess we will find out whether he “figured something out” or focused a little more and worked a little bit harder to get his new contract. I know I would.

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    • Bill says:

      I’m chock full of wants and desires. Why didn’t they sign me?

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    • observer says:

      there’s no way your comments are serious

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  3. Hey! says:

    Ubaldo had one of the easiest schedules you will ever see last season. Especially in the second half. No really. Look it up. Baltimore likely will likely regret the signing.

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  4. kevinthecomic says:

    has anyone looked at his stats on a team-by-team basis? i seem to recall him being great against the league dregs (astros, white sox, twins) and awful against everyone else — true?

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    • Trotter76 says:

      Breaking it down further:
      vs playoff teams: 48 IP, .223 BAA, 4.69 ERA
      vs other teams over .500: 57.1 IP, .227 BAA, 2.98 ERA
      vs sub-.500 teams: 77.1 IP, .257 BAA, 2.68 ERA

      So the batting average against is the worst against the dregs, but the ERA was best, and the inverse is true against playoff teams.

      Mostly he got destroyed by Detroit, Boston and the Yankees in 5 starts against those teams, and was pretty good against everyone else except (of all teams) the Marlins, who tagged him pretty good in an interleague game.

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  5. Hey! says:

    the same could be said for Scott Kazmir last year as well obviously. he’s not going to be so hot this year.

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  6. Jack says:

    He’s moved from the changeup to the splitter, but the overall usage of those two pitches combined hasn’t changed much over the past three years. The big change last year was a nearly +10% increase in slider usage, at the expense of the fastball and curve. I would expect that to be the driving factor in his improvement, rather than the move from changeups from splitters. I’m also just skeptical that the changeup and splitter are definitely significantly different pitches.

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    • Eno Sarris says:

      Two inches less vertical movement, and much better whiff rate, and he calls it a split-finger fastball that’s different from his change-up from what I’ve seen, but you’re that the velocities and movements on the split and change are close. In any case, if you add the two together, he’s throwing more junk than cheese these days.

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    • Bip says:

      He could manage to keep his delivery more consistent with the split. Maybe he had a tendency to tip the change?

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  7. Hey! says:

    you don’t think it has mostly to do with the fact that most of his match ups came against teams that simply couldn’t hit?

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  8. Hey! says:

    seriously, check his game log from last year. he was basically facing Little League teams the entire season.

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    • senorpogo says:

      Lets see…
      vs. WP>.500: 105.1 IP, 3.76 ERA
      vs. WP<.500: 77.1, 2.68 ERA

      So by ERA he was better than league average against winning teams and dominate against losing teams.

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    • Trotter76 says:

      9 starts against playoff teams
      10 starts against other +.500 teams
      13 starts agains -.500 teams.

      Seems like a pretty fair distribution. All this information is available if you’d like to do your own legwork to back up your assertions.

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  9. Hey! says:

    and how does this indicate I don’t enjoy reading?

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  10. matt says:

    Contract is fair value and I don’t think Ubaldo will completely fall apart, but when you include the cost of the draft pick and look at Garza’s deal, it doesn’t look quite as good.

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    • goprojoe says:

      Garza’s deal was influenced by his perceived injury risk, though, and Jimenez has been pretty healthy. I’m an Orioles fan but consider myself fairly objective and like but don’t love the deal. It gives them a ton of flexibility in terms of allowing for injury, moving a starter like Norris to the bullpen, and giving Gausman a little more time to develop. Any FA starter with his upside and price tag is going to come with some risk. My main problem with Jimenez is that even when he’s good his pitch counts get high and he has trouble getting into the 7th inning, which goes true for a lot of our pitchers.

      I don’t think it will cripple them going forward despite Wieters and Davis coming up for contracts as Markakis will be off the books after this year and revenue is on the upswing. The draft pick sucks but we have a great farm for pitching, though not for position players.

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      • Matthew Murphy says:

        Fair point about Garza’s health, but think that the option year on his contract mitigates a lot of that concern. Haven’t seen all the details for Ubaldo’s contract yet, but assuming there’s no team friendly option years, I’d prefer Garza on his contract. Even if you disagree, the draft pick penalty makes Garza the much better buy in my opinion.

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  11. Kevin says:

    the potential to give up oodles of HRs in AL East ballparks is a big deal with Jiminez, and that goes for Santana too.

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  12. Ray says:

    Eno- this article has made me change my mind on keeping him at $5 in an AL only keeper league this season. Nice work.

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  13. Personally, I just don’t trust him to be worth $50 million after his time in Cleveland.

    I could be completely wrong, but he’s been better than mediocre for exactly half a season in the past 3 years.

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  14. Frank says:

    Call me old/new fashioned, but it seems like your record should be better than “streaky” before teams buy into risking a long term, high dollar contract on you.

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    • larry bowa says:

      High dollar? They are paying him to be about a 2 WAR pitcher, meaning league average. I’d be surprised if he can’t put up 8 WAR over the 4 years of the deal.

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    • Bip says:

      You’re old fashioned, but only because you consider this a “high-dollar” contract.

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  15. ankle explosion hr celebration says:

    “With a little bit of help from his defenders, and perhaps even more split-fingers in the future, this new Ubaldo Jimenez could easily put up a 2014 season similar to the one he had in 2013.”

    I don’t get Eno’s fascination with the split-finger. If it was really as simple as there being a pitch that was just better at getting whiffs than all other pitches, every single pitcher would have learned it and would be throwing it constantly.

    I think the misunderstanding stems from a lack of respect for selection bias. Obviously the split finger is great, but only for the guys who use it. And those guys wouldn’t be using it unless it were pretty good. We have no idea how good the split-finger is as a pitch among the population of pitchers who don’t throw it regularly. Maybe the guys who throw it a lot just happen to be better pitchers. Maybe it derives value from other pitches those pitchers throw.

    TL;DR It’s too simplistic to say more split-fingers leads to success. It could be correlative, rather than causative.

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    • Eno Sarris says:

      Obviously not saying people should throw bad split-fingers. But if you can throw an average split-finger, it is the pitch in baseball that has the highest average whiff rate. I’d say injury concerns are holding it back.

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      • ankle explosion hr celebration says:

        two things:
        My point is that an ‘average split finger’ means that its average relative to other split fingers which are thrown (because those are the only split fingers you can observe), not all of the split fingers which exist. The relative paucity of split fingers in the league as a whole may indicate that an average split finger is a hard thing to acquire. Or it could be injury concerns, as you note, but I’m a little skeptical of that because at some point, being a better pitcher is worth more than being injured with a slightly lower probability.

        Second, one of the problems with per-pitch statistics is that they occur in a tremendously complex context. So more whiffs may be happening on the split finger, as you say, but it may not be because the split finger is such a quality pitch so much as because the pitchers who throw it have deceived the batter into believing it will be a different pitch, for instance. That is, the success of the split finger may be correlated with an underlying virtue of the pitchers rather than be caused by the pitch itself.

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        • Eno Sarris says:

          You’re right on many specifics, but I still like the pitch because: The split-finger comes out of the hand spinning like a four-seamer, but dropping like a change-up, and that’s how it gets more whiffs than any other pitch. You don’t pronate as much, so you can’t see it in the wrist. In other words, it looks like a four-seamer and then the bottom drops out. Almost every pitcher has a four-seamer. You need three things to be able to do well with a split-finger: 1) an average split-finger; 2) enough control to get ahead in counts since SF ball rates are high; 3) a four-seamer. Maybe 4) Big hands and flexible fingers. And 5) willingness to throw a pitch some think will lead to injury. It’s enough qualifications to understand why everyone’s not doing it, but the bar is still low enough that I think you’ll see more pitchers learning it. The Japanese pitchers coming over are really showcasing the pitch.

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        • Jon L. says:

          It’s nice to see an intelligent exchange of ideas in the comments section. Here there be trolls, but there are also informed baseball fans.

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        • ankle explosion hr celebration says:

          thanks Eno for your responses. Interesting things to think about.
          and thanks Jon L for the compliment, I think.

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    • Bip says:

      The splitter seems like a popular pitch in Japan. I don’t have data for this, but most of the Japanese pitchers I know of have one, while it’s somewhat rare among pitchers from other parts of the world. If this is true, then maybe the reason is simply that it’s not a popular pitch in the US and other countries. I wouldn’t have a clue why, but it may be more than just the natural selection of splitters we observe in the majors.

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  16. Boston Phan says:

    He has had his rough patches for sure, but his xFIP looks like this:

    2009 – 3.59
    2010 – 3.60
    2011 – 3.71
    2012 – 4.98
    2013 – 3.62

    2012 sure seems like the outlier. Eno’s article does a good job of figuring out what is going on with him, but the results are fairly similar. I think “larry bowa” is right with his analysis of the deal, even though I really don’t like Larry Bowa.

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  17. JimmyD says:

    So how much of Jimenez’ second half success was helped by Yan Gomes calling pitches for him?

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  18. jim fetterolf says:

    Looks like seven starts against eventual playoff teams on the season and only one the last three months when his ERA dropped from 4.67-3.30.

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  19. Baltic Fox Has Cold Paws says:

    If the split finger helps Ubaldo this much, I hope Chen approaches him for some advice for incorporating into his repertoire. (Translator with Mandarin and Spanish skills necessary, I guess.)

    That’s one heavy FB pitcher who is a poor fit for Camden Yards unless he learns a pitch that helps him induce more ground balls.

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  20. Brendan says:

    Looking at his slider more, his 2011-2012 vertical break was terrible. It was so bad that it was barely breaking down; it was breaking .05 of an inch in that time span. In 2013, his vertical break was back, evident by a 1.9 inch vertical break. That’s comparable to his more youthful days up in the mountains of Colorado. Looking at how hitters reacted to his slider was insightful too. He had the fewest swing/pitch % in the league last year, followed by Chris Sale and Felix Hernandez. It seems that not only did his splitter contribute to his success, but the uptick in sliders and return of his vertical break of the pitch.

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    • Bip says:

      The “vertical break” you’re citing has no bearing on a slider’s success. Among the best sliders in the game last year were Chris Sale’s and Yu Darvish’s, with negative vertical movement (though Sale’s pitch should probably be classified as a kind of slurve), and Masterson’s and Scherzer, with 0.4 and 0.2 inches of vertical movement, respectively.

      A slider, like most breaking pitcher, is supposed to be a contrast to a fastball. Fastballs have more vertical “rise” than any other pitch, so it stands to reason that less vertical movement is not necessarily a detriment to a slider’s effectiveness. If a slider comes out of a pitcher’s hand looking like a fastball, which typically has around 8 inches of rise, then a batter may swing 8 inches over a slider with 0 inches of vertical movement.

      There is sometimes an idea that more movement = better pitch, but that is not necessarily the case, especially because the “0” that pitchfx uses is somewhat arbitrary with respect to vertical movement.

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  21. GoodasGoldy says:

    Ubaldo is facing 81 games at Camden vs 81 at Progressive. 76 games vs AL East teams containing 3 hitters parks (in addition to Camden) instead of 76 against what has been much weaker AL Central offenses (other than Detroit) and only 1 real hitters park (ChiSox). When Ubaldo’s mechanics get out of whack for 2 to 3 months like they have every season it’s going to be even uglier being in this division.

    This just wasn’t a good top-end SP FA market for the O’s to go shopping. I would have ignored the media and fans outrage and gone with lower cost/lower commit options to pad the the rotation like Colon or Kazmir and used the extra 1-2mil $ spent on Ubaldo to wait for options like Maholm, Capuano to fall through. I like the O’s so I hope Ubaldo works out, but in hindsight I think they gaffed by waiting out the Tanaka situation.

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    • Travis L says:

      Of course, any pitcher the Orioles sign would be facing those conditions.

      If you’re speaking from a fantasy perspective, I agree — this deal will harm Jimenez’s unadjusted numbers.

      From the perspective of the Orioles, however, you have to sign someone to pitch those innings. They decided ubaldo was their best / cost effective option.

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  22. Connor says:

    Did ESPN readers decide to raid Fangraphs today?

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  23. Squints says:

    Most of last years “success” is predicated upon his 2d half, one where he got to face the bottom 5 or so offenses in MLB in half his starts.

    Sorry, the AL East will devour him, new style or not.

    He still has issues with walks, which is not going to play well versus the Yankees and Red Sox and he can’t hold runners for shit, meaning guys like Gardner, Ellsburry, Jennings, Reyes,et al are going to have a track meet when they reach base.

    Throw in questions abounding about his mental fortitude and it’s a recipe for medicority.

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