Ubald-Oh, No: What’s Ailing the Tribe Hurler?
Ubaldo Jimenez is soft-spoken. He seems at peace with his pitching, even after a frustrating outing, the kind of outing that has become the norm during his brief tenure as a member of the Indians.
Jimenez has never displayed a sense of anger or irritation in postgame interviews. Dissatisfaction? Sure. Of course he isn’t thrilled with the fact that he has allowed 50 baserunners in 28 2/3 innings this season. But the right-hander typically shrugs off the notion that something major is wrong with his mechanics or mental approach on the mound.
Last season, I dove head-first into the issues Jimenez was having after he struggled once he came to Cleveland from Colorado in a Trade Deadline deal for, among others, top pitching prospects Drew Pomeranz and Alex White. Then-pitching coach Tim Belcher stressed that Jimenez needed to trust his fastball more and use the pitch to set up his off-speed stuff. That would seem like an easy fix, if Jimenez is capable of throwing the heater 98 or 99 mph, like he once was. His average fastball was clocked at better than 96 mph in 2009 and ’10, which led all of baseball both seasons, according to FanGraphs.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg, though.
Jimenez has always struggled with command. His herky-jerky delivery makes it difficult to repeat the same motion each pitch. For his career, Jimenez has averaged four walks per nine innings. That high total was acceptable in the past, when recording a hit against Jimenez was a tall order. In his much-ballyhooed 2010 season, when he went 19-8 with a 2.88 ERA after starting the season 15-1, Jimenez allowed just 6.7 hits per nine innings. The year before, he served up just 7.6 hits per nine frames.
So far this season, Jimenez has yielded 9.4 hits per nine innings, a number identical to what he allowed last season after switching teams. He’s no longer missing bats with his pitches. According to FanGraphs, he’s inducing swinging strikes on just 4.9 percent of his pitches this season. In 2009, that number was at 9.6 percent, and in 2010, 9.1 percent. Fastball velocity plays into that quite a bit, and it becomes a compounding issue.
In Tuesday’s 7-2 loss to the White Sox, Chicago second baseman Gordon Beckham — hitting .190 — reached out and pulled a 91-mph fastball on the outside part of the plate over the left-field fence for a home run, his first long ball of the season. There’s nothing special about a fastball that, when thrown to the opposite side of home plate, can be turned on by a hitter and pulled for a round-tripper.
Jimenez can’t trust his fastball anymore. It isn’t the heralded weapon it once was. Last year, Belcher said: “You have to pitch off your fastball, especially when you throw as hard as he does.” If he’s stuck in the low 90s, however, he can’t use it to set up his other pitches, because he lacks the command to spot it exactly where he wants. Jimenez is averaging 6.3 walks per nine innings in his five starts this season.
The greatest proof of Jimenez’s struggles can be identified through his strikeout numbers. For his career, Jimenez is averaging 8.1 K/9. This season, just 4.4 K/9. He’s not overpowering anyone anymore. So, if hitters aren’t teeing off on his fastballs, they’re watching them sail out of the strike zone. Batters are having little trouble getting ahead in counts against Jimenez. In fact, batters have been ahead in counts in 63.8 percent of their at-bats against him this season. Jimenez has thrown 59 first-pitch balls and 74 first-pitch strikes (which includes the 16 times a batter has put Jimenez’s first pitch in play). That’s not exactly setting oneself up for success. As a result, Jimenez is having to work harder to put hitters away, and his pitch count is suffering in the process.
In his first start of the season — a seven-inning gem in which he allowed only one hit — Jimenez threw 95 pitches. In four outings since, he’s totaled 112, 107, 113 and 105 pitches, despite lasting no more than six innings in any of the appearances.
Velocity is the name of the game for the lanky hurler. Without it, he becomes average. Will 5 mph magically reappear on his fastball? Perhaps Sarah Phillips can give you odds on that. In the meantime, instead of waiting around for Jimenez to regain velocity (can’t blame the cold weather — his numbers at Progressive Field this season are far and away better than his road statistics), the Indians might want to consider starting fresh with him. Something adjustment must be made to either provide Jimenez with more giddy-up on his fastball or more pinpoint control.
Tribe brass has repeatedly remarked that they wouldn’t ask Jimenez to alter his delivery. They did, however, send Fausto Carmona back to the Arizona instructional league in June 2009 when he started 2-6 with a 7.42 ERA.
How long of a leash does Jimenez have?