By the end of the month of June a year ago, the Baltimore Orioles had to be regretting the four-year, $50 million contract they had just handed out to Ubaldo Jimenez. In the first half of the 2014 season, the right-hander posted a 3-8 record with a 4.52 ERA. He walked 5.4 per nine, and failed to reach the sixth inning in 10 of his 18 starts before the All-Star break.
After only half a season, it appeared the Orioles had saddled themselves with a lemon. Jimenez appeared a shell of the pitcher who roared to a 15-1 record and started the All-Star Game in 2010. After that lone appearance in the Midsummer Classic, Jimenez dealt with arm ailments that robbed him of his ability to touch the upper nineties with his fastball. With that loss of velocity, Jimenez, who could best be described as “effectively wild” during his best days in Colorado, saw that lack of control magnified.
The most glaring issue with Jimenez during the 2014 season, one that saw him placed on the disabled list with a phantom ankle injury, demoted from the rotation, and left off the ALCS roster, was fastball command. Last year, Jimenez threw 1,351 fastballs, but roughly 40% of them were balls. This led to a career-high walk rate of 5.5, a significant increase from his previous high of 4.8, set in 2012 during a 9-17 campaign for the Cleveland Indians. The ineffectiveness and wildness of his fastball also dictated his ability to utilize his splitter and slider. Jimenez also went to a 1-0 count nearly as frequently as he went to an 0-1 count. Getting a first pitch strike is incredibly valuable, and dictates the rest of the at bat, but Jimenez was not able to get ahead in the count frequently enough to go to his strikeout pitches.
This season, things have turned around massively for Jimenez. His 3.27 ERA is his lowest since that previously mentioned 2010 campaign, and he is walking fewer than three per nine for the first time in his ten year career. He has walked one or fewer in six of his 13 starts, and has thrown a first pitch strike in nearly 60% of plate appearances. Command issues have still flared up at some points this season, like a June 6 start against the Indians where he walked six in only five innings, but for the most part Jimenez has limited the free passes. There are still some issues regarding pitch efficiency. He has already made three starts this year in which his pitch count topped 100 pitches after five innings or less, a frequent occurrence last year. In those starts, however, he has done enough to at least give the Orioles a chance to win.
When you look at the batted ball data, it is clear that there is not a massive difference in the Jimenez of 2014 and this year’s version other than the ability to avoid walking hitters. He has allowed the same percentage of hard hit balls this year as last. Home runs were not really a killer last season, nor are they this year. Increased use of the two-seamer — up from 40.2% a year ago to 48.2% this year — has driven Jimenez’s groundball rate up from 41.3% to 45.9%. If anything, increasing his groundball rate has hurt Jimenez, as he has allowed a .311 BAbip, and has given up an inordinate amount of singles. He was giving up these base hits with men on base more frequently last year because of the high walk rate. Now, without men aboard via the walk, a few singles here and there are not nearly as damaging.
Even during his struggles last year, Ubaldo Jimenez never lost his ability to strike hitters out. His slider, curveball, and splitter remained excellent strikeout pitches, and he still struck out nearly a batter an inning, just as he is doing this year. Even with the inflated ERA and walk rate, the raw “stuff” that has made teams eager to acquire Jimenez over his career was still there. His splitter has been swung at and missed nearly 20% of the time this season. That splitter was still a quality pitch a year ago, but Jimenez was not able to throw it as frequently due to the fact that he was often behind in the count. With the ability to get the fastball over, comes the ability to work from ahead in the count and attack with the swing-and-miss type pitches that were always in his arsenal.
Credit Ramon Hernandez for getting Ubaldo Jimenez back on track. Hernandez has worked extensively with Jimenez since Spring Training to refine his delivery, and the result has been a consistent, repeatable delivery that has Jimenez locating his fastball early on in the count. There will be flare-ups of the maddeningly inconsistent Jimenez that seemed destined to haunt the Orioles, but as the season goes on, and he becomes even more comfortable with his more compact, tighter pitching motion, bouts of wildness should become fewer and farther between.
A year ago, it would have sounded absurd that Ubaldo Jimenez would be the steadying force in the Baltimore rotation, but as Chris Tillman and Bud Norris continue to struggle and Miguel Gonzalez deals with injuries, that is exactly what he has been. As simple as it seems, all of this is due to one thing, fastball command. So long as that trend continues this season, Ubaldo Jimenez will continue his resurgent season.