Ubaldo Jimenez Rounding Into Form; Spot in Orioles’ Rotation Assured?

The first three starts of Ubaldo Jimenez‘s 2015 Spring Training were far from pretty, and had many Orioles fans, including me, openly questioning his place with the Orioles. After three starts, the right-hander’s ERA sat at 11.05, and he had walked five batters and hit two more in only 7.1 innings. Now, three starts later, Jimenez has lowered his ERA this spring to 4.84. More importantly, he has walked only two batters in his last 15.0 innings while striking out ten.

Walks were the primary culprit in the dismal 6-9 first season in Baltimore for Ubaldo Jimenez. He walked 5.5 per nine innings, and labored to pitch beyond the fifth inning in most of his starts due to an inability to locate the strike zone in many of his starts. This offseason, Jimenez made major overhauls to his delivery, and the work he put in appears to be paying off. To show you some of the adjustments made by the Orioles’ pitcher, take a look at the following two clips, the first from yesterday’s game against the Toronto Blue Jays, and the second from last season’s April 13 tilt, also against the Blue Jays.

The second video comes courtesy of Walt Hisenbeck, whose YouTube channel is worth a look sometime for those interested in high quality baseball video. Throughout his career, Jimenez had never been a pitcher whose delivery would be rewound again and again for young pitchers to learn and mimic — far from it actually. The difference between these two clips is striking. In the most recent clip, Jimenez begins his delivery with his hands held high and tight before brining the ball directly down into his throwing motion. He also maintains a more upright posture.

In that early-season start against the Blue Jays from a year ago, Jimenez allowed five runs through 5.1 innings while giving up ten hits and walking two. He threw only 57 of his 98 pitches for strikes. Fast forward just under a year later, and against a Jays lineup with many of the regulars in the lineup for his entire outing, he allowed only one earned run on a solo home run by Josh Donaldson.

With this third consecutive strong start, I believe Ubaldo Jimenez has all but locked up a spot in the Orioles starting rotation to start the season. His confidence has grown since the initial rough outings. “Every time I get out there, I’m feeling like I’m getting more comfortable and more confident with what I’m supposed to do out there,” he said.

There are many factors that may have contributed to Jimenez’s ineffectiveness last season, including the fact that he went unsigned for much of the winter. He got out of the gates very slowly in April, going 0-4 with a 6.59 ERA and 5.59 BB/9. Opposing hitters also batted .300 against him in his five April starts. April gave way to May, and Jimenez finally appeared to be getting comfortable on the mound. His May and June performance was respectable, as he went 3-4 with a 3.41 ERA and a respectable .221 BAA. Walks were still a concern, especially late in June. After an improved May in which he walked only 3.63/9, Jimenez saw his walk rate spike back up to an abysmal 6.09. The wheels on his season finally came off for good in July, when an ankle injury befell the pitcher. Jimenez was ineffective the remainder of the season and did not pitch during the Orioles’ playoff run.

Fixing his mechanics was key for Ubaldo Jimenez. Injuries and over 1,400 big league innings have taken some of the pop off his fastball, which was once electric during his days with Colorado. His average fastball velocity is down from the lofty peak of 96.3 mph in 2010 to a more pedestrian 90.6 mph last season. As evidenced by his strikeout rate continuing to hover near 9.0 per nine innings, the secondary pitch arsenal is still working for Jimenez, but he needs to get himself into a position to use his excellent split finger fastball and slider. Throwing strikes is now key for Jimenez who cannot rely on a blazing fastball alone to get outs.

If harnessing his delivery will allow Jimenez to cut down on his walks and locate his fastball in the zone, there is a good chance he can return to the level of his 2013 season with the Indians, when he pitched to a 13-9 record with a 3.30 ERA. At this point, it appears Jimenez has done enough to justify his presence in the Orioles rotation. Outside of being owed nearly $40 million over the next three seasons, the Orioles do have good reason to start the season with Jimenez in the rotation, as he served little to no value to the organization as a reliever thanks to his bouts of wildness. A handful of solid starts generates trade value in Jimenez moving forward, which is something management should not fail to consider given the abundance of young arms in the Orioles farm system who appear poised to reach the Majors in a year or two.

Handing the fifth spot in the starting rotation gives the Orioles the freedom to start the season with Kevin Gausman in the bullpen, a role in which he flashed signs of brilliance in the playoffs last season, or in the minors where he can continue to work on developing his command. Regardless, Gausman will have a chance to get plenty of innings this season, which is necessary for his continued development.

Manager Buck Showalter had this to say about Gausman: “Whether he is short or long, he’s going to have plenty of innings to do either one,” Showalter said. “I think he’s going to be equipped to do either one coming out of the spring if he makes our club. … Some of that comes along with the innings management, too, which is not the issue it’s been in the past. We hope to take our best 25 and our right 25.”

After a rough start that had many Orioles fans ready to press the panic button, Ubaldo Jimenez appears to have righted the ship and rediscovered the ability to locate the strike zone on a consistent basis. Only time will tell if the signs of progress he has shown in Spring Training will carry over for a full season, but he has done enough to warrant an opportunity to start the season in the rotation. The Orioles start the season with one of the weakest opening month schedules in the league, and Jimenez must capitalize on that fact and get off to a hot start to further cement his status as a starting pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles.

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