On Ubaldo Jimenez, And Measured Expectations In 2013 For the Cleveland Indians

By Thom Tsang
David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Once considered a major acquisition by the Cleveland Indians, Ubaldo Jimenez will go into the 2013 season as the team’s number-two starter behind Justin Masterson; whether he’ll pitch like a number-two pitcher, however, is another story.

Jimenez certainly hasn’t pitched like it since arriving via trade more than a year ago. What the Indians have seen is a pitcher whose workload got to him before he turned 30, a once-feared 100-mph fastball drop to the low 90s, and a pitcher who was seemingly more hittable by day.

This wasn’t the American League making it harder for Ubaldo – it was his skills diminishing before he’d even gotten to Cleveland.

Though there were no official signs that Jimenez has had any significant health issues over the last two years, his 5.40 ERA and 1.61 WHIP was enough to make some people wonder whether something was wrong. The former fireballer had always denied it, of course, but Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports wrote in a preseason column last season that a groin injury suffered by the pitcher in Spring Training of 2011 threw off his mechanics entirely.

If it messed him up then, it certainly didn’t get fixed in 2012.

If anything, Ubaldo was even worse. He couldn’t get his fastball to go as fast as it wanted to, and to make matters worse, he didn’t get it to go where he wanted to: his 1.18 BB/K on his four-seamer was the highest since 2008, when he’d posted his second worst BB/9 rate in his career at 4.67. The worst? 2012 (4.84), of course.

Without the velocity and location on his bread-and-butter pitch, hitters simply zoned in on it, as evidenced by a career-worst 24.9 percent line-drive rate and .938 OPSA on the pitch – the effectiveness of the rest of his arsenal simply followed. Had Jimenez’s mechanic problems followed him all the way through 2012? How much of last season could be contributed to a process of trying to fix his grip and form?

And more importantly, how can he return to form in 2013?

Though I’m sure the issues behind it are likely very complex, the question itself it has a very simple answer: velocity.

We’ve seen how dominant Ubaldo Jimenez has been when he’s been able to throw a pinpoint two-seamer cutting in on a batter in the high-90s, and we’ve seen what batters can do to him in the last couple of seasons when that velocity isn’t there. Yes, Ubaldo can learn to pitch at this stage of his career instead of being fastball-reliant, though doing so last season (57.8 percent fastballs thrown, a career-low) didn’t exactly work out for him either.

The rest of his stuff isn’t nearly as effective without the explosive fastball setting him up, and if Jimenez is not hurt as he continues to insist, he will have to show up in Spring Training this season and show it on the radar gun – for him, it’s the clearest sign of natural decline in his abilities.

If he can’t do so, the Indians’ number-two pitcher in 2013 might just end up struggling to hold on to a rotation spot by the end of the season.

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