September 10, 2013
Is Ubaldo Back?
Just over a month ago on Effectively Wild, Sam Miller and I surveyed the 2014 options that teams would have to decide to pick up or pass on at the end of this season. When we came to the Indians’ $8 mutual million option on Ubaldo Jimenez, we very nearly dismissed it without saying what it was.
Me: Ubaldo Jimenez.
Barring injury, there’s probably never a time when we should dramatically alter our opinion of a position player based on a sample as small as Ubaldo’s post-podcast performance. But with pitchers, sometimes a little over a month makes a major difference. Jimenez has made six starts since Sam and I discussed him. In those six starts (and 38 innings), he’s allowed 10 runs, eight of them earned (1.89 ERA). His BABIP over that stretch is .304, so he hasn’t benefited from luck on balls in play. He’s simply pitched well, giving up only one homer, getting groundballs on almost half of his balls in play, and recording 47 strikeouts against 13 walks. Since the beginning of August, his zone and strike rates are up a couple percentage points, and his whiff rate is up 25 percent. Two of his last three starts—including his scoreless seven-inning outing against Kansas City on Monday night—have been 10-strikeout, no-walk performances, the only two such starts he’s ever made.
Today, Ubaldo’s option looks like almost as big a bargain as Ben Zobrist’s. Such a big bargain, in fact, that it doesn’t make sense for him to exercise it. Granted, teams would (and should) be wary of Jimenez, who was awful for the Indians in 2011 and 2012. But say he were to extend his string of excellent outings over his final few starts. In that scenario, it wouldn’t be unrealistic to think that he could decline the option, hit the open market, and either command a multi-year deal or get twice what the option would have paid him him for a single season.
The truth is that Sam and I were sort of slow on the uptake. Between Ubaldo’s disastrous, seven-run second and third starts of the season and his outing just prior to the podcast, he’d recorded a 3.36 ERA over 104 1/3 innings, striking out almost a batter per inning (albeit with iffy control). But having seen him struggle so mightily since coming to Cleveland, we weren’t willing to adjust our expectations based on anything short of a complete return to form.
If you squint, what’s what this recent run looks like. It’s not just that Jimenez’s results have improved; his stuff has also bounced back. The righty’s average four-seamer velocity has ticked up about two miles per hour since June.
Lately he’s been averaging almost 95 miles per hour, which—while still a far cry from his Colorado peak—is still better than we’ve seen from him since he descended from Denver.
So where did that extra speed come from? In May, Jeff Sullivan noted that Jimenez had made some minor mechanical tweaks to speed up his delivery. But many mechanical tweaks don’t last, and in May, Jimenez wasn’t throwing any harder than he had for most of 2012. I asked in-house mechanics expert Doug Thorburn—who covered Ubaldo’s mechanical collapse last season—to take a fresh look at Jimenez’s delivery in his start from last night. Here’s what he said:
Here are Ubaldo's deliveries from the windup on July 4 (left) and last night (right):
And from the same dates, how he’s looked from the stretch:
The glass-half-full interpretation of Doug’s observations: Jimenez made mechanical changes, and those changes produced a measurable uptick in his stuff. If he keeps doing what he’s doing, he’ll keep experiencing success.
The glass-half-empty interpretation: Jimenez made mechanical changes, and those changes produced a measurable uptick in his stuff. But Jimenez has made mechanical changes before, and eventually abandoned them or proven unable to keep them consistent. Worse, Jimenez hasn’t so much cleaned up his mechanics as he has made them more complicated. Even the scout who recently raved that Jimenez looks the best he has in three years acknowledged that “the delivery has a lot of flaws.” His release points from last night (right) look as widely disbursed as they did three months ago (left), and not nearly as tight as, say, Madison Bumgarner’s (below):
This is the Apollo 13 approach to pitching mechanics. An oxygen tank blew up, and the Service Module has to be abandoned? Okay, we’ll use the Lunar Module as a lifeboat. The square Service Module carbon dioxide scrubber cartridges don’t fit the round receptacle in the Lunar Module? Fine, we’ll build a makeshift scrubber out of tape, cardboard, and a plastic bag. It will work for a while, but not forever, and there’s still a hole in the side of the Service Module. Jimenez has found a way to compensate for his suspect mechanics. But because he hasn’t addressed his delivery’s deeper flaws, this might be more of a temporary fix than a lasting solution.
A few, more minor developments worth mentioning: perhaps as a result of his new look on the mound, Jimenez's release point has risen slightly. And assuming it's not a variation of the same pitch, he's also decreased his splitter usage and brought back his changeup, which he’d thrown in previous seasons but had abandoned (or at least relied less on) for the first few months of this year (and which the aforementioned anonymous scout deemed "really good"). And according to Harry Pavlidis' pitch classifications at Brooks Baseball, Jimenez has even begun to mix in a few cutters, which would be a new offering for him.
Jimenez shares a rotation with Scott Kazmir, so his comeback might not be the best on his own staff. Still, it’s still unusual to see diminished speed come back so strong, and it’s exciting to see Jimenez experiencing such success. But let the buyer beware: if this is just eye of the storm, the other side of this successful stretch could be ugly.