Ubaldo Jimenez isn’t what he used to be. His pitches have all declined in velocity and bite since his peak in Colorado, and his Cleveland numbers, both superficial and underlying, look pale in comparison. And this with a move out of one of the most extreme hitter’s parks in the big leagues to one more friendly to pitchers.
But 2013 was a story of redemption for Jimenez, and his adjustment to the current state of his stuff was a big part of that. The Orioles believe in that adjustment, hoping it will stick enough to make the four-year, $50 million investment they made in him look wise.
First, let’s look at how stark the decline in his stuff had become. Starting with his age-25 season in 2009, here are the swinging strike metrics on his primary pitches over the past few seasons.
The underlying cause may have been velocity drop. All of his pitches generally dropped in velocity over the same time period, most notably his four-seamer, which dropped from 96+ to 91+. Command of those pitches is always an issue with Jimenez, but that seems come and go as it pleases, and there’s no linear loss of command as there is with swinging strike stuff.
Pitchers sometimes regain stuff and velocity, but at 30, that seems unlikely for Ubaldo going forward. So it’s probably good news that the change in Ubaldo last season was *not* one about regaining stuff or velocity. His change-up (14% whiffs), slider (11%) and curve (7%) — all pitches that used to be plus in terms of whiffs — are still all below average when compared to the league.
Somehow Jimenez arrested a three-year decline in swinging strike and strikeout rates last season, though. Without regaining velocity or bite on his arsenal. Hey look at that, he threw his split-finger more than ever. Maybe we should all learn the split-finger like Jimenez did.
The narrative isn’t super clean. Jimenez has had a split-finger for a long time. But he hasn’t used it like he did in 2013 ever before. Over his career going into 2013, he’d thrown the pitch 3% of the time according to BrooksBaseball. Last year that number was 14%. Add a pitch with a 17% whiff rate, even if that whiff rate is basically league average, and you’ll see more strikeouts.
It’s a trend you’ll see across his arsenal. By any classification system on this site, he’s thrown the fastball less as he’s aged. We know there’s some evidence pitchers use their fastball less as they age, and Jimenez puts this into focus — as the fastball becomes less effective, you have to throw your junk more.
Of course there’s evidence that heavy breaking pitch usage leads to more injuries, but when you’re buying a 30-year-old pitcher, that’s just part of the price. If this new version of Jimenez sticks, he is a pitcher that has manged 30+ starts since he became a regular. And past disabled list stints are still the best predictor of future disabled list stints.
There’s some evidence that this will be a good fit for the Orioles. Recently, Jimenez’ ground-ball rates have been mediocre, but his career number (47.6%) and increased reliance on off-speed stuff suggest that there’s some bounce in those numbers. If he can garner grounders, the Orioles are ready. They had the fourth-best batting average on balls in play allowed and the second-best team Ultimate Zone Rating in the American league. They shifted their infield defense more than anyone last year with 470 shifts according to Jeff Zimmerman’s piece in The Hardball Times Annual. Once Manny Machado is healthy again, this is a defense that can gobble up ground balls.
With a little bit of help from his defenders, and perhaps even more split-fingers in the future, this new Ubaldo Jimenez could easily put up a 2014 season similar to the one he had in 2013. Even with aggressive aging projections, that probably makes this contract a value. And maybe all it took was throwing the fastball less and the split-finger more.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.