Through seven starts last season, Ubaldo Jimenez was the best pitcher in baseball. In 48.1 innings pitched, Jimenez allowed 28 hits while striking out 49 batters en route to a miniscule 0.93 ERA. This season, things have changed for the 27-year-old hurler. In his first seven starts this season, Jimenez hardly looks like the same pitcher. Over that same period, Jimenez carries an unsightly 6.14 ERA. Expected to be entrenched in a fight for the division crown all season, the Colorado Rockies need to figure out what’s wrong with their ace before it’s too late.
There are a few reasons to be optimistic about Jimenez’s current performance. Despite the high ERA, Jimenez is currently striking out batters at a career rate. His BABIP is slightly higher than normal, and his LOB% is a paltry 61.8%. All told, Jimenez has performed much better than his ERA has indicated this season, posting a 4.45 FIP and a 4.24 xFIP. Still, that’s hardly the type of performance the Rockies expect from their ace.
There currently seems to be two main reasons for Jimenez’s struggles- the first of which is control. Never his strength, Ubaldo’s control has completely deserted him this season. In 36.2 innings, Jimenez has walked 23 batters, good for a 5.65 BB/9. Oddly enough, Ubaldo’s first-strike percentage is the highest since his rookie season, making his struggles all the more confusing. Ubaldo has been able to get ahead in the count early, but appears to lose hitters as he gets deeper into at-bats.
The second reason for Ubaldo’s struggles is his declining velocity. According to PitchFx, Ubaldo’s velocity is down on nearly all of his pitches this season. The most drastic change has occurred with his slider, which has dropped from 86.4 to 82.6 mph. On top of that, his fastball is down nearly two miles per hour. The dropoff seems to have had a clear effect on the effectiveness of Jimenez’s pitches. Both his fastball and slider currently carry a negative pitch type value this season. Over his career, those have been Ubaldo’s best pitches.
There seems to be one unified theory that helps explain Ubaldo’s poor start to the season: his mechanics are out of whack. This would go a long way toward explaining both his issues with walks, and his lack of velocity. If Jimenez cannot find his proper release point, he’s going to have less control over his pitches. If something is out of whack with his mechanics, that would easily explain why his velocity is down. Jim Tracy seemed to agree with that assessment, noting the following after Ubaldo’s start on Tuesday.
“There is no doubt in my mind that what we’re dealing with here is mechanical in nature, and once he gets the complete feel for that and the consistency of it to repeat it pitch after pitch after pitch, then I think you’re going to see the Ubaldo Jimenez that you guys have been waiting for, and all of us have been waiting for, actually, to show up.
If his start on Tuesday was any indication, Jimenez may already be working through his issues. In his longest outing of the season, Jimenez walked only one batter – the first time that has happened since his season debut. For a pitcher like Jimenez, who doesn’t have the “ideal” delivery, even the slightest change to mechanics can have a devastating effect on performance. The good thing is that Jimenez, his coach and his trainer seem to realize the issue at hand is not physical, and are working to correct it. So long as there’s no physical issue with Jimenez – and we have no reason to believe there are – we should start seeing the old Jimenez again. The one that finished third in the Cy Young voting last season.