Rocktober may well return in 2009. Following a dramatic 14-inning win over the San Francisco Giants last night, Colorado holds a four-game lead in the Wild card standings. That’s not insurmountable by any means, but Baseball Prospectus’ Postseason Odds Report gives the club a 75 percent chance of making the playoffs.
Once adjusting for the run-inflating nature of Coors, Colorado’s offense has been decidedly middle-of-the pack (they rank 7th in the NL in Park-Adjusted Batting Runs, at a collective -7 compared to the league average). The team’s D hasn’t exactly been sterling, either, placing 28th in team UZR. Rather, it’s the pitching that’s keeping the Rockies in the running. Colorado’s starters have authored a 3.92 FIP, 5th in the N.L. Once again adjusting for the environment of their home ball park, Colorado ranks 1st in the NL in starting pitching runs above average, at +146.5.
The man leading the charge is 25 year-old Ubaldo Jimenez. In his first full year in the rotation in 2008, Jimenez showed a world of promise, though also a maddening tendency to lose the strike zone. The Dominican Republic native (signed back in 2001) punched out 7.79 batters per nine innings, while also causing the opposition to chop the ball into the dirt with great frequency (54.4 GB%). He did, however, issue 4.67 BB/9 in his 198.2 frames of work.
In 2009, Jimenez has taken his pitching to a different level. The punch outs (7.95 K/9) and grounders (52 GB%) remain, but his walk rate has been pared down to 3.41 per nine innings. That fact that Ubaldo has managed to increase his K rate while facing fewer hitters per inning (4.5 batters faced per inning in ’08, 4.18 in ’09) is very impressive. His percentage of PA ending in a strikeout has risen from 19.8 in 2008 to 21.1 this season.
Everything Ubaldo throws is working in ’09. Everyone knows about the 6-4 righty’s searing fastball velocity (his 96 MPH average is tops in the majors). However, he is far more than a one-trick pony. That fastball has been worth +0.66 runs above average per 100 tosses, but Jimenez’s wicked 86 MPH slider (+2.17 runs/100), 77 MPH curveball (+0.56) and hard 87 MPH changeup/splitter (+2.12) are causing plenty of hitters to return to the dugout, grumbling and wondering just how they’re supposed to hit this guy.
Jimenez doesn’t appear to receive a whole lot of love nationally (though outdueling Tim Lincecum on Sunday will surely help), but he is establishing himself as one of the premier starters in the National League.
Ubaldo can flummox batters with any of four above-average-to-plus pitches. He possesses strong groundball tendencies, which certainly can’t hurt in a hazardous pitching venue (grounders may yield a higher BABIP than flyballs, but those flyballs that aren’t caught are typically extra base hits and yield a far higher slugging percentage; that’s why all things being equal, groundball-centric pitchers are preferable). And now, his control appears to have taken a step forward.
Jimenez is an ace, and one can make a case that he’s the best starter in the pitching-rich NL West not named “Haren” or “Lincecum.”