Ubaldo Jimenez Proving His Worth by Craig Edwards June 29, 2015 Heading into this season, not unlike most seasons over the past few years, not much was expected out of the Baltimore Orioles from the statistics-based community at FanGraphs. Despite winning at least 85 games in each of the past three seasons with two playoff berths and the division title in 2014, just seven of the 38 FanGraphs writers surveyed before the season expected the Orioles to make the playoffs. The projections pegged the Orioles for 79 wins and gave them just a 16% chance of making the playoffs. The offense figured to be led by Adam Jones, Chris Davis, and emerging star Manny Machado providing great production at the plate and in the field, but the pitching had some question marks with no starter projected to record an ERA or FIP below four. While Jones, Davis, and Machado pacing the offense, there are still questions about the pitching staff, but Ubaldo Jimenez has returned from a terrible 2014 to provide stability for an Orioles team once again in first place in the American League East. Jimenez was once one of the best pitchers in major-league baseball. From 2008 to 2010 with the Colorado Rockies, Jimenez accumulated 15.3 WAR, ninth in MLB just behind Felix Hernandez and right ahead of Jon Lester, Adam Wainwright, and Jered Weaver. Inconsistency plagued Jimenez over the next three seasons with the Cleveland Indians, but a great second half in 2013 — when he posted a 1.82 ERA, 2.17 FIP and 3.0 WAR — earned him a four-year deal with the Orioles worth $50 million. Almost immediately after signing with the Orioles, Jimenez cratered, losing velocity on the fastball and his effectiveness in general. Jimenez’s fastball once averaged around 95-96 miles per hour with the Rockies before falling to 92-93 mph with Cleveland. After reaching Baltimore, though, his velocity fell to 90-91 mph and any hope for a continuation of the second half of 2013 soon fell as well. Jimenez finished the season with a 4.81 ERA and 4.67 FIP, and pitched only 125.1 innings following a demotion to the bullpen. He pitched zero innings across Baltimore’s seven postseason games. Expectations were low for Jimenez heading into the season and he had to fight in Spring Training for a rotation spot, ultimately securing the No. 5 role ahead of Kevin Gausman. There might have been some hope that Jimenez would rediscover some of the velocity he had lost after an offseason of rest, but that velocity has not yet been regained, as Jimenez still pitches around 90-91 mph with his fastball. The lack of velocity has not yet mattered for Jimenez. Indeed, he’s having his best season since his final full year in Colorado back in 2010. Jimenez currently owns a 3.09 ERA, a 3.13 FIP and his 2.0 WAR ranks 11th in the AL. His 24% strikeout rate is almost as high as 2013 in Cleveland and his 7% walk rate is better than even any half-season in his entire career. Jimenez has done a much better job avoiding hitter’s counts, especially when it comes to getting to three balls on a hitter. Over his career, Jimenez has gone to three-ball counts on roughly one-in-four hitters. Here are those numbers by year: Ubaldo Jimenez 3-Ball Counts PA 3-Ball Count % 2008 202 868 23.3% 2009 197 914 21.6% 2010 221 894 24.7% 2011 203 822 24.7% 2012 202 805 25.1% 2013 182 777 23.4% 2014 165 553 29.8% 2015 73 366 19.9% Last season, Jimenez was letting the hitter to get to a three-ball count nearly 30% of the time. This season, that number is below 20% and the walks have been almost cut in half. Much of Jimenez’s rebound can be traced to the use and effectiveness of his two-seam fastball. It is not a swing-and-miss pitch like his splitter, but it has been useful down in the zone, preventing walks and setting up his entire arsenal. Jimenez is somewhat unique in that he throws five different pitches: a four-seam fastball, a sinking fastball, splitter, slider and curve. Over the last few seasons he has de-emphasized the use of the four-seamer and slider and seen the use of his sinking fastball increase. The chart below from Brooks Baseball shows the rise of his sinker. Jimenez actually increased the use of his sinker considerably in 2014, so the increased use of the pitch is not solely responsible for Jimenez’s rebound. Location has been far more important. Look at the zone map for Jimenez’s sinker in 2014: Now look at it in 2015: Jimenez has a much lower walk rate in 2015, but he is not throwing more pitches in the strike zone. Last season, Jimenez’s zone rate was 48%, but it is actually down to 46% this season. His first-strike percentage has increased by 5% over last season and is up to nearly 51% of plate appearances against. Throwing his sinker with a more consistent location has helped him, especially early in counts. Last season, Jimenez threw 232 first-pitch sinkers, and the pitch was a ball 44% of the time and was swung on 16% of the time, per Brooks Baseball. This season, he has started hitters off with a sinker nearly 50% of the time and the pitch has been a ball just 37% of the time with more than 21% swings. It is not just the sinker that Jimenez has been pitching low in the zone. His entire arsenal, as seen by the chart below which shows all non-sinker pitches, is going at the hitters knees or below. Pitching low in the zone has getting Jimenez ground balls over 46% of the time, his highest rate in several years. The consistency has also resulted in an uptick in strikeouts. The strikeouts were on display yesterday in his start against the Indians and he used four of his five pitches to get strikeouts. First, the four-seam fastball to get Jason Kipnis. The splitter is Jimenez’s best swing-and-miss pitch, getting nearly 21% whiffs on the pitch, per Brooks Baseball. Here it is against David Murphy: Jimenez does not throw the curve often, but he does use it occasionally, and got Jason Kipnis swinging for the second time on Sunday. The sinker does not generate very many swings and misses, but it can fool hitters, as it did against David Murphy. (Come for the sinker, stay for the umpire leg kick) Jimenez has gotten stronger as the season has gone on. Buck Showalter, perhaps being careful with Jimenez at the outset of the season, pulled the pitcher prior to reaching 100 pitches in eight of his first 10 starts. He did not crack 90 pitches in five of those starts. In his last five starts, Jimenez has been given more opportunities to pitch deeper in games. He has gone at least 98 pitches in every one of his past five starts and gone over 100 pitches in four of those outings. The increase in pitches did not immediately yield to more innings, as Jimenez failed to pitch past five innings in three of the last five starts. Therefore, his eight-inning outing against Cleveland is certainly encouraging. The inconsistent label is not likely to leave 31-year-old Jimenez anytime soon, but his approach going low in the zone has been very beneficial thus far. With Chris Tillman having a mostly disastrous season thus far and Wei-Yin Chen and Miguel Gonzalez outperforming their peripherals by more than a run, Jimenez keeping up his excellent work could be very important for the Orioles going forward. The AL East looks to be an incredibly tight race, and while the Orioles are not likely to be the favorites to win the division, it would be a mistake to dismiss a repeat title.