After a brutal start to the season, including an ERA over 5.00 and an 0-5 record, Ubaldo Jimenez appears to be righting the ship following Wednesday’s complete game shutout victory over the Dodgers. Jimenez looked much more like himself on Wednesday, recording seven strikeouts and only allowing four baserunners, all on singles. His fastball scraped 96 MPH in the ninth inning on his 104th and 106th pitches, an excellent sign for a pitcher who has struggled with his velocity all season long. Does this start represent a turnaround for Jimenez?
It’s never difficult to find positives in a complete game shutout. The late velocity has to be the number one encouraging factor for Jimenez’s future performance. Jimenez also threw a whopping 73 strikes of his 106 pitches and induced 12 ground balls out of 24 balls in play, both well above his averages on the season. Control is a key for Jimenez, as the main factor behind his struggles this season hasn’t been his lower strikeout rate — he’s less than one strikeout per nine innings off last year’s pace — but his increased walk rate. Even after nine walkless innings, Jimenez’s walk rate sits at 4.5 BB/9. Even with his ability to suppress the home run, Jimenez hasn’t been able to afford these extra runners on base. Wednesday was a step in the right direction, and though it’s obviously unrealistic to ask for this kind of superhuman control every single start, Jimenez will need to keep his walk rate closer to 3.0 than 4.0 to regain his former glory.
Wednesday’s start also contained signals that Jimenez isn’t completely back to form. Despite lighting up the radar gun in the ninth, his fastball velocity averaged 94 MPH, still a full two MPH below his marks from 2009 and 2010. His struggles missing bats continued as well, as Dodgers hitters only whiffed on four of his 106 pitches. Perhaps it’s unfair to blame him for drawing contact on outs before Dodgers hitters even had a chance to swing and miss, and perhaps he was deceptive enough that hitters were simply watching strikes they would’ve swung right through. It is unlikely, though, that Jimenez will succeed on the level he did last year without regaining his 9.0+ percent swinging strike rate.
Although Jimenez’s start was no doubt impressive and a large step towards regaining his form of old, I’m not quite ready to declare him all the way back just yet. As he still appears to have the stuff to keep fly balls in the yard, he can be a very dangerous pitcher, and his 3.77 FIP actually indicates that he hasn’t pitched too poorly. However, in Coors Field, failing to miss bats leads to danger, particularly for a pitcher with a history of allowing as many walks as Jimenez. In his next start, Jimenez can take yet another step forward by limiting the walks again while missing bats like he has in previous seasons. After a horrible start to the season from one of 2010’s brightest spots, Wednesday’s outing shows a light at the end of tunnel.