Ubaldo Jimenez was once a terrific young starting pitcher for the Colorado Rockies. He had tremendous raw talent and pitching acumen to boot. If harnessed, he figured to miss bats, keep the ball on the ground and limit walks while remaining on the effectively wild side. He could dial it up to 96 mph — average fastball velocity of 95.8 mph in 2007 — and threw a top-notch, looping curveball that was tough to pick up with his herky-jerky windup. He was, potentially, the prototypical pitcher capable of succeeding at Coors Field.
After posting WAR totals of 4.3, 5.9 and 6.4 from 2008-10, he took a step back last season. His strikeout, walk and groundball numbers were very similar to the prior three years, but he served up more home runs and was less effective at stranding runners. Last season was a case of strong ERA estimators that belied better performance than his actual earned run average. As such, he seemed like a prime regression candidate this season. Through 28 starts and 161.1 innings this year, however, Jimenez has just 0.4 WAR. After averaging 5.5 WAR from 2008-10, Jimenez isn’t currently on pace to finish with even one win above replacement over a full season.
While last season’s relative struggles — he had been so effective that 3.5 WAR represented a down year — at least gave hope to improved performance, everything has gone wrong this season. Jimenez has regressed, but not in the direction his 2011 peripherals portended. Instead, he is set to finish this season with the worst numbers of his career across the board. He quickly went from one of the best to one of the worst, and it doesn’t seem that the major causes are easily fixable.
On a basic level, his numbers have worsened because he is now surrendering more home runs and allowing added baserunners in the first place. That increased number of baserunners is mostly comprised of those issued free passes through his declining walk rate, and those who reached by hitting him around.
After hovering in the 46%-50% groundball range for several seasons, Jimenez has just a 39% groundball rate this year. Unfortunately, over half of the difference has shown up in the line drive column. The remainder has turned into flyballs that are turning into homers at a 13% clip. From 2008-10, and prior to his mid-season trade to the Indians last year, Jimenez’s HR/FB never rose above 8.9%.
Batters are handling him better because his stuff isn’t as nasty and he has had issues locating. His once-electric 96 mph fastball now averages 92.7 mph on the radar gun. He isn’t locating the curve as frequently, and it isn’t fooling hitters either. His former 86 mph slider is now being thrown more often despite now barely topping 83 mph. The same is true of the changeup. His slider is barely moving vertically this season. His other offerings have picked up some horizontal movement, but hitters have been able to pick them up more quickly given the reduced velocity. As a result, they haven’t been as inclined to swing out of the zone, and have increased contact within the zone.
It’s important to cite plate discipline metrics in the appropriate context(s), and in this case Jimenez is not only faring much worse than he ever has, but he ranks as the worst in the American League, or one of the worst, in a few key areas.
The league average O-Swing% is 30.6%, while Jimenez has a 22.6% rate. His 7% SwStr% is below the 9% league average as well. Batters have contacted 88.5% of his in-zone pitches, compared to an 87.3% league average. He has thrown first strikes just 53.2% of the time, compares to the 59.9% league.
His 22.6% O-Swing% is the worst in the junior circuit. C.J. Wilson ranks behind him with a 25.9% mark. That ‘race’ isn’t even close. Jimenez also has the 5th-lowest SwStr% in the league and the lowest rate of throwing first strikes. He isn’t just below average in these areas. He’s essentially the very worst in the American League. And it isn’t as cut-and-dried as assuming his struggles are related to the league switch, because his numbers (K%, BB%, GB%, SIERA) over 11 starts with the 2011 Indians were almost identical to those before the trade.
It sure seems like Jimenez’s problems are related to the natural decline of his repertoire. Perhaps it’s the wear and tear on his body. After all, starters don’t tend to average 96 mph throughout their entire careers, and his wind-up has always been viewed as being potentially problematic down the road. His ‘stuff’ isn’t the same, but he hasn’t made the appropriate adjustments to pitch in a way more suitable for what he has to work with now. Whether he can make those adjustments will shape his career trajectory from this point on. The Rockies likely chalked last year’s trade up as a win as they were able to shed salary and acquire top prospects, but it’s safe to say the Indians didn’t expect that one of the best would instantly become one of the worst.