The words “Ubaldo Jimenez” and “good start” haven’t appeared together often this year. In fact the word “start” itself hasn’t always applied. But with his team clinging to a Wild Card spot and still within reach of a division title, he picked a great time to throw four good starts in place of an injured Chris Tillman.
Jimenez’s first two years with the Baltimore Orioles are a study in contrasts. In 2014, he walked nearly 14% of his batters en route to a 4.48 xFIP. Although the Orioles won the AL East and took Jimenez to the ALDS, they left him off the ALCS roster. But in 2015, Jimenez harnessed his funky mechanics, got more ground balls, walked fewer batters, and had a much better 3.83 xFIP.
This year has more resembled 2014 than 2015. Although Jimenez is walking fewer batters than in 2014, he’s striking out fewer, too, leading to a lower strikeout- and walk-rate differential (K-BB%). After beginning the season in the rotation, here’s what happened:
- June 14 – Demoted to bullpen. At the time, his strikeout rate was just 17.3%, while his walk rate was 11.4%.
- June 17 – Pitched 2.1 innings in emergency relief of Mike Wright. Jimenez struck out four batters but walked two and gave up two long balls.
- June 22 – Returned to rotation.
- August 1 – Demoted to bullpen again. From June 22nd to August 1st, his strikeout rate improved to 22.25%, but his walk rate soared to an unplayable 15.7%.
- August 24 – Returned to the rotation as a result of Chris Tillman going on the DL. At the time the Orioles were 69-56, two games back in the AL East and two games ahead of Seattle for the second AL Wild Card spot.
His four starts in place of Tillman were good. Jimenez struck out only 15.9% of the batters he faced, but he cut his walk rate to a stingy 5.6%. He also threw the team’s first complete game since 2014.
The following graph shows his K-BB% trend:
A 10.3-point K-BB% rate is nothing to get excited about. But for Jimenez, it’s progress, and it’s progress at a crucial time.
In an interview with Eduardo A. Encina of the Baltimore Sun, Jimenez credits the improvement to a change in his delivery. Specifically:
Jimenez said the main adjustment he has made has been when breaking his hands from his glove. Instead of extending his arm back, he’s lowering it, which he said has allowed him to get behind the ball and gain better command.
Jimenez usually looks like he’s punching someone who’s attempting to steal his wallet. Recently, though, he’s been taking a more direct, downward path. Or that’s the case, in theory.
Let’s see some visual evidence! To begin, here’s Jimenez immediately after breaking his hands on his first pitch of the game on April 7:
And here’s Jimenez at the same point in his first pitch of the game on August 30th:
Both shots are from the home broadcast in Camden Yards. The differences might be subtle at first but, relative to April, the frame from August shows:
- Jimenez’s right arm closer to pointing straight down than out-and-back, supporting what he told Encina.
- His pitching arm rotated accordingly. His two-fingered grip faces towards the center-field camera instead of into right-center field.
- A position closer to the first-base side of the rubber.
- His glove hand resting on his hip instead of clutched against his torso.
It may seem odd that small changes to a pitching motion can separate success from failure, but when all the body’s muscles are involved, and when the goal is so precise, no change is minor. I don’t know much about pitching mechanics, but I do know about compound lifts like squats and deadlifts. The activities are similar in that success comes when you recruit specific muscles in a specific sequence, not just once but over and over again.
If one link in this chain is off, the process breaks down to some degree. You may still luck into a swinging strike, an infield fly, or successfully lifting the weight. But you may not be so lucky next time.
The Orioles hope this latest change sticks. The team’s other starting pitchers leave something to be desired. Behind Kevin Gausman, who’s having a good year, the team relies on:
- Chris Tillman, who’s also having a good year, albeit one built on a very high left-on-base percentage (LOB%). He returned successfully from his DL stint but the team continues to monitor his shoulder — moreso, I presume, than their other pitchers’ shoulders.
- Dylan Bundy, who’s been good in the rotation but who is a recovering Tommy John patient well above his career high in innings pitched. He’s only starting because Jimenez was demoted. The team’s initial plan seemed to be to get Bundy through a full year without his arm falling off. But when Jimenez was demoted to the bullpen, Bundy moved up.
- Wade Miley, who’s pitched okay since joining the team, but who’s fallen victim to a very low LOB% and a very high HR/FB rate.
- Yovani Gallardo, whose 5.37 xFIP says all you need to know about his 5.44 ERA.
Collectively, this group and others have a 107 xFIP-, equivalent to the Twins’ and worst among all the playoff hopefuls save the Rangers. You can win the World Series with such a rotation — the Royals proved this last year — but doing so isn’t a blueprint for repeated success.
Despite his team’s hope, Jimenez will lose his mechanics again. His delivery will always be a work in progress. Don’t believe me? Just read this article from 2013. Here’s a mechanical discussion from 2014. And one from 2015. Still skeptical? Let’s go back to 2010.
At the very least, Jimenez proved he can sustain a low walk rate for a handful of games. That’s damning with faint praise, but he needs all the praise he can get. It’s been scarce for him this year. If he can retain his mechanics for a little while longer and continue helping the Orioles down the stretch, he’ll have all the praise he wants and then some.