The roller coaster ride continues for Ubaldo Jimenez

When Ubaldo Jimenez has been good this year for the Baltimore Orioles, he’s been very good. When the 31-year-old right-hander has been bad…well, look out. With last night’s victory in the books, Jimenez ran his record on the year to 9-7 and lowered his ERA to 3.79. In his nine victories, Jimenez has thrown 60.2 innings and allowed just 13 earned runs, good for a 1.93 ERA. On the flip side, he has allowed 30 earned runs in those seven losses, spanning just 34.2 innings. I’ll do the math for you, and it’s not pretty. Jimenez has a 7.79 ERA when he takes the loss.

Against the Los Angeles Angels last night, Jimenez was firing on all cylinders. The Angels did not record their first hit until the sixth inning when Kole Calhoun hit a two out double. With the Orioles still nursing just a 3-0 lead, and Mike Trout coming to the plate, Jimenez needed an out. He got it on four pitches, striking the reigning American League MVP out on a nasty, diving splitter. Jimenez completed the seventh and the eighth innings, allowing just one more hit, and departed without allowing a run, striking out six, and walking only one.

It was a start befitting a pitcher in the second year of a $50-million contract, the richest ever handed out by the Orioles to a free agent pitcher. Along with the dominant performance against the Angels, Jimenez has delivered an eight-inning shutout outing against the Cleveland Indians on June 28, allowing just four hits and striking out seven. His first start of the year was a seven-inning one-hitter against the Toronto Blue Jays. Overall, Jimenez has pitched into the seventh inning or beyond ten times in 22 outings this year, a far cry from last year, when seeing Jimenez on the mound in the sixth inning was cause for great celebration.

Now, let’s get to the bad stuff.

Since June turned to July, Jimenez has a 5.35 ERA and 2-4 record in seven starts. His strong start last night, and a seven inning, two-run performance against the Atlanta Braves on July 28, notwithstanding, Jimenez has been downright awful of late. Take your pick. There’s the July 17 start against the Detroit Tigers in which he allowed seven earned runs and three home runs in 4.2 innings, that performance was followed by a 2.1 inning, seven-run dismantling at the hands of the New York Yankees. Jimenez got back on track in the aforementioned start against the Braves before melting down again against the Tigers last Sunday in a 4.2 inning, six-run loss.

What’s been missing when Jimenez takes the loss is command, something he struggled with the entirety of the 2014 season. The walk has not been as much of a killer this year — even in losses, Jimenez is walking just 2.9 per nine. Though he is not walking opposing batters at the rate of 5.5 per nine innings as he did last year, Jimenez has still struggled getting ahead of hitters in the count this season. He’s gone to a 1-0 count nearly as often as an 0-1 count this year. When Jimenez reaches two strikes on a hitter, it has almost always ended well this year. Opponents have struggled to crack .200 once Jimenez reaches two strikes. On the other side, however, opponents are batting .282 after a 1-0 count, .385 after a 2-0 count, and .353 after a 3-0 count. That’s to be expected, for any pitcher, but Jimenez ends up in those hitter’s counts far too often.

Jimenez has gone 1-0, 2-0, or 3-0 336 times this year. The ever crucial 1-1 pitch has gone in favor of the hitter 105 times. When Jimenez throws strikes early in the count, the outcome has usually been favorable. He’s allowed a .135/.200/.216 slash line after a 1-2 count, for example. The strikeout stuff Jimenez flashed with the Colorado Rockies is still there, as evidenced by his 8.3 K/9 rate, but his fastball no longer touches the upper nineties. When forced to rely upon his less dominant fastball after falling behind in the count, Jimenez has not been able to thrive. His splitter tumbles out of the zone, making it difficult to throw when behind in the count.

At this point in his career, Jimenez is armed with a two-seam fastball with sink that tops out around 92. When it’s up in the zone or out over the plate, it will be hit, and hard. Mechanics have always been an issue for the lanky, 6′-5″ pitcher. When the follow through is good, and the delivery tight, Jimenez pounds the lower half of the strike zone with his fastball, but when he starts flying open, who knows where the fastball is going.

Besides command, the other big issue plaguing Ubaldo Jimenez this year has been confidence. He does not handle adversity well, and in many of his losses, has struggled to prevent opponents from hanging crooked numbers on the scoreboard. Take last week’s start against the Tigers. After allowing a first inning homer to J.D. Martinez, Jimenez settled down and retired the next 12 Detroit batters. What followed next was a double, single, triple, single meltdown that saw the Tigers plate three more runs and blow the game open. Through it all, the Orioles’ starter generally looked like a lost puppy. You just knew there was no way the bleeding would be stopped without a pitching change.

The Baltimore Orioles do not need Ubaldo Jimenez to give them eight shutout innings every time he takes the ball (but it would be nice). What the team needs, as it tries to keep pace with the Blue Jays and Angels in the playoff hunt is consistency. No more roller coaster rides, no more six or seven run outings. Jimenez is no longer the top of the rotation ace he was in Colorado, even if he does flash signs of it every once in a while. The Orioles need Jimenez to pitch with command and confidence every fifth day. If he can do that, their playoff chances will get a huge boost over the final two months of the season. Baltimore’s offense is good enough to overcome most any mediocre pitching performance, and if Jimenez can begin giving the team a chance to win even on days that he does not have his best stuff, it will be a huge boost for an Orioles franchise looking to make consecutive playoff trips for the first time since 1997.

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