Ubaldo Jimenez’s Struggle With The Right Strike Zone

When the Orioles signed Ubaldo Jimenez just days into Spring Training, the risks were well documented. Despite one of the best second half runs of 2013, Jimenez’s career has been characterized by two things. He went through that bizarre season and a half where he struggled to find the strike zone and seemingly lost the ability to miss bats. But, he seemed to have found those skills in 2013 as he led the Indians to the playoffs with a 13-9 record along with a 3.30 ERA, a 25 percent strikeout rate, and a 10.3 percent walk rate. The Orioles, needing a quality pitcher, signed the 30 year old right hander to a four year, $50 million deal.

It hasn’t exactly started out like the Orioles wanted. The Spring Training results were not good as Jimenez pitched 15.1 generally ineffective innings. He struck out just 8 and walked 6 batters while allowing 15 hits.

{Discuss Jimenez’s early struggles on the BSL Boards}.

Spring doesn’t mean anything, but his three regular season starts have offered up much of the same. His best outing was his first start against the Boston Red Sox in which he pitched 6 innings, allowed 5 hits, 4 runs, 3 walks, 2 home runs, and struck out 6 batters. His second start was at Yankee Stadium where he failed to pitch out of the fifth inning. In 4.2 innings, he allowed 8 hits, 4 runs, 5 walks, and struck out 3 batters. Against the Blue Jays, at home, he pitched 5.1 innings, allowed 10 hits, 5 runs, 2 walks, 2 home runs, and struck out just 2 batters.

Obviously, these are just three starts and thus far Jimenez looks to be completely healthy. And, given his track record against the Yankees and Red Sox (career 2-9 record with 47 runs allowed on 65 hits in 50.2 innings), the results aren’t shocking. Many pitchers get off to poor starts. Many pitchers have a bad three or four consecutive starts. Everything is exacerbated during the first month of the season.

But, there are some troubling signs during his first three starts. Most are fixable. His strikeout rate is the lowest of his career, while his walk rate is the highest. Usually a ground ball machine–47.3 percent for his career–Jimenez has generated just a 30.2 percent ground ball rate. As a result, his fly ball rate after his three starts stands at 50.2 percent. That helps explain the four home runs allowed.

Perhaps the most troubling of all comes from the fact that he simply isn’t missing bats. For his career, he has generated swings and misses with pitches in the strike zone 12.1 percent of the time. This season, batters have been successful an obscene 93 percent of the time when Jimenez throws a strike. Sure, you could look at the .380 BABIP and point to bad luck, but when Jimenez isn’t generated ground balls, the problem has nothing to do with luck.

Toss in the diminished velocity to start the season and the first three starts are quite alarming. Through three starts, Jimenez is averaging 90.7 MPH with his fastball. That is down from 91.7 last season, which was done from 92.5 MPH in 2012. His 2012 velocity was actually down from 93.5 MPH in 2011. In fact, unless Jimenez regains that one mile per hour of velocity, this will mark the fourth consecutive season with decreased velocity.

All of that doesn’t really explain the struggles in the first three games. For Jimenez, his struggles can be encapsulated by the cliche “location, location, location”. In each game this season, he has been quite consistent in the strike zone. The problem is that it is the wrong part of the strike zone.

As the graphic shows, when Jimenez pitches to the lower part of the zone, he is still quite effective. But, the majority of his pitches have been right in that middle part of the strike zone. And, even when not in that middle part of the strike zone, Jimenez has pitched up in the strike zone. A pitcher averaging 90 MPH and who is supposed to have some sink on his fastball will never be successful pitching this way.

It is also quite easy to see that Jimenez not only gets hit hard in that area, but is struggling to pitch lower in the strike zone. By comparison, the 2013 version of Jimenez was more adept at pitching lower in the strike zone and at avoiding the middle of the plate.

But, what is the cause of this? Perhaps it is poor mechanics. Jimenez does have a delivery that is based somewhat on timing, given his pause before delivering to the plate. During his last start against the Blue Jays, his release point was a bit inconsistent as the graph below indicates. Most of the game’s best pitchers have a release point plot with dots in the same area. Jimenez does have some small variations.

Even with the release point variations, it comes down to the types of strikes Jimenez is throwing. Against the Blue Jays, far too many were in the middle of the plate.

Because he was generally in the middle of strike zone or higher, it allowed for batters to lay off any pitches diving down in the zone. Most of the low pitches where taken for balls rather than swung at. Right now, batters are sitting on fastballs or pitches thrown in the middle of the zone because that is all Jimenez is throwing.

All signs point to a delivery problem. With an inconsistent delivery, Jimenez is pitching too high in the strike zone. But, there also looks to be one last issue that could explain all of this. In Jimenez’ first outing, he allowed 2 of his four runs in the 5th inning, his second to last inning of work. The other two came in the third inning. Both were home runs. Against the Yankees, he once again pitched two scoreless innings before allowing runs in the third, fourth, and fifth. Against the Toronto, he did allow a home run in the first inning to Colby Rasmus, but pitched well before getting hit hard in the 6th inning.

That could point to some poor conditioning. While that it isn’t an excuse for a Major League player, especially one collecting a $50 million contract, but Jimenez didn’t have a typical winter.¬†Perhaps that all could’ve been written off because of the winter Jimenez had. One can believe that he was working out, but there is a difference when there is no team holding you accountable. Perhaps that was the reason for his poor start.

Last season, his turnaround was generally credited to the work Cleveland Indians Pitching Coach Mickey Callaway did with him during the offseason. Callaway frequently visited Jimenez in the Dominican Republic. Even Manager Terry Francona went a couple of times. Jimenez is the type of pitcher who needs constant monitoring of his mechanics. It worked last season. This winter, Jimenez waited for a team to sign him. With no team, there were no supervised offseason workouts. His conditioning isn’t where it was last season. His mechanics are far worse.

The upside is that all of this can be improved. As Pitching Coach Dave Wallace gets to work with him more, the mechanics should be smoothed out. As Jimenez continues on his regular program, his endurance will get better. In each start, he has fared well early in the game, when his strength was high. As the game wore on, he pitched up in the strike zone and became more hittable. That should improve in each outing.

Not too much can be gleamed from three starts. Signing Ubaldo Jimenez was still the correct move for the Orioles. He wasn’t signed as an ace, but he can still be a quality number two pitcher. As he gains endurance and more consistency in his delivery, better results should follow. Until then, the middle part of games will be adventurous to say the least.

(H/T to BrooksBaseball.net for all graphs and data.)

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About the author


Gary Armida  

Orioles Analyst

Gary Armida is a Father to the best little girl in the world. After that, he is a writer who has been covering Major League Baseball since 2007. During that time, Gary operated FullCountpitch.com, one of the first independent online sites that gained Major League Baseball media credentials. Over the years, he has covered two Winter Meetings and has written feature articles for a variety of outlets while interviewing Major League personnel such as Rick Peterson, Jason Giambi, Zack Wheeler, Jeff Luhnow, Jack Zduriencik, Michael Bourn, and many others. In addition to his work at BSL, Gary contributes to USA Today Sports Weekly and maintains his personal site, garyarmida.com, that serves as his portfolio as well as a place for additional content.


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