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Ubaldo Jimenez to Indians: Will He Be an Ace Again in Cleveland?

FAIL!

Huge news out of Cleveland this weekend as the Indians made their first big trade deadline buy in years when they acquired Ubaldo Jimenez from the Colorado Rockies.

Jimenez, 27, made a name for himself last year when he got off to one of the best starts in recent history. As late as mid-June, Ubaldo had a sub-1.00 ERA. He was 15-1 at the All-Star Break and threw a no-hitter in April. He finished the season at 19-8 with a 2.88 ERA and 6.3 wins above replacement en route to a third-place finish in the NL Cy Young voting.

This year, though, he hasn’t looked quite like himself. He’s 6-9 with a 4.46 ERA. His fastball’s lost more than 2 mph of velocity and his batted-ball profile has taken a turn for the worse. It’s no wonder many Tribe fans are up in arms about the wisdom of dealing both Drew Pomeranz and Alex White (not to mention Joe Gardner and Matt McBride) for him.

But don’t pay too much attention to those superficial stats—Ubaldo has been much, much better than you think.

First off, Jimenez has been truly unlucky. He has a fairly high .312 BABIP and a too-low 66.7% strand rate. FIP has him at 3.54, while xFIP and SIERA both put Jimenez at 3.56. Those aren’t ace-like numbers in this season’s low run environment and it’s fair to say he isn’t as good as Justin Masterson, but his luck-neutral numbers look significantly better than his back-of-the-baseball-card stats.

Also worth noting is that Ubaldo has been pitching progressively better as the season has gone on. He had a 6.75 ERA in April, which fell to 5.45 in May before dropping to 3.48 mark in June and July. A month is a minuscule sample size for a pitcher and it’s irresponsible to draw any major conclusions from his last few starts, but the trend is undoubtedly an encouraging one.

His luck-neutral numbers (which stablize more quickly) improved too; his FIP (5.55 in April, 3.05 in June and July), xFIP (4.51, 2.88) and SIERA (4.01, 2.79) have all dropped dramatically with the turning of the calendar.

There are some, of course, who do not trust the luck-neutral stats because they don’t pass the feel test. To them, it seems wrong to judge pitchers (or any aspect of the game) based on how things should have gone or would have happened in a fairer context. There must be something about Jimenez—a lack of clutchness, perhaps, or an inability to induce weak contact—that causes him to underperform his peripherals.

However, that’s an awfully disingenuous argument, given that people were saying the exact opposite things about Ubaldo last year.

At the end of June 2010, Jimenez had a 1.15 ERA against a 2.93 FIP—still very good, but not godlike—and a 3.61 xFIP—more than triple his ERA. He had a BABIP of .239, a strand rate over 90%, and a HR/FB rate south of 4% despite playing his home games at Coors Field. But to say he was getting lucky was heresy—many, if not most, fans thought he was “an outlier imposter.” If there is some inherent problem with Ubaldo’s makeup or mechanics that made him a poor clutch pitcher, why did the exact opposite thing happen last season?

As Beyond the Box Score’s Bill Petti noted, there are some legitimate reasons to think Jimenez’ underperforming his peripherals could continue—namely, his decreasing fastball velocity and rising line-drive rate. But such problems wouldn’t be responsible for a disparity this large without some additional bad luck, which we shouldn’t expect will continue.

He might not be a Cy Young and this doesn’t necessarily mean the Indians didn’t overpay for Jimenez—I’m still undecided about the trade—but Tribe fans should be excited about the boost Ubaldo gives the rotation and feel quite confident every time he takes the mound in a Cleveland uniform.