What to Expect from Ubaldo Jimenez
I’m not going to attempt to decipher what the signing of Ubaldo Jimenez means for the team in the big picture. I won’t try to assess how the deal impacts their attempts to re-sign players like Hardy or Wieters or Davis. I’m not going to make any predictions for the team’s record, or whether Ubaldo makes them a playoff team. I recommend you read Gary Armida’s account of the signing if you’re looking for those things, and peruse the countless articles online breaking down the signing.
The goal of this piece is to give a nuts and bolts overview of what to expect from Ubaldo Jimenez. What pitches does he throw, and when? How does his approach change given a particular situation? Is he likely to succeed given the circumstances he’s walking in to?
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Consistency, Performance, and Major Question Marks
Make no mistake, Ubaldo Jimenez is an excellent pitcher. Over the past five seasons he has had one (his disastrous 2012) where he posted a FIP above 3.70. FIP, which has much more predictive value than ERA or other traditional stats highlights the components of pitching that only the pitcher can control: strikeouts, walks, and home runs. Over the past seven seasons, Jimenez’s FIPs have been:
2008 – 3.83
2009 – 3.36
2010 – 3.10
2011 – 3.67
2012 – 5.06
2013 – 3.43
Many people have suggested that Ubaldo Jimenez is very volatile, but those numbers actually look very stable. His average FIP over the past six seasons has been just under 3.75, and that it artificially inflated by his poor showing in 2012. Jimenez’s performance have been volatile, and some of his in-season performances have been subject to wild swings in ERA and overall performance. He is however, on balance, a solid starting pitcher option to anchor the front portion of the Orioles’ rotation.
Over those same six seasons Jimenez has produced over 3.75 fWAR per season on average, despite his 0.1 fWAR from 2012 pulling that down dramatically. If you consider that the Orioles will be paying him $12.5MM in average annual value (AAV) over the duration of the contract it puts things into perspective. Remember that the cost per win on the free agent market is somewhere between $6 and $8MM and you can draw your own conclusions about the financial component of the signing.
Jimenez throws a whopping seven pitches, but relies primarily on just three of them. He mainly throws a sinker (30.99% of the time in 2013), a slider (25.17%) and a four-seam fastball (21.16%) which make up nearly four out of every five pitches he will throw in a given game. His other pitches are, in descending order, a splitter (13.63%), a change-up (3.91%, a curveball (3.72%), and finally a cutter (1.42%). Good luck to the guy who posts the last pitch thrown on the scoreboards at Camden Yards next season.
I previously examined how Jimenez approaches any given at-bat for Beyond The Box Score, and have included an excerpt from that article below:
Generally speaking, a good pitcher is one who sees at-bats end in one of a predetermined set of outcomes. Also generally speaking, two of the best outcomes for pitchers are strikeouts (surprise!) and ground balls. Even though ground balls go for base hits more often than fly balls, they go for extra base hits less frequently. Strikeouts are good because well, it’s a strikeout, which is almost always an out.
Jimenez seems to understand this based on his pitch usage. First, let’s take a generic look at how Jimenez approaches at-bats (not filtered by RISP). Left-handed hitters see a fastball 18% of the time, a sinker 34% of the time, and a cutter 1% of the time. That means that there’s roughly a 53% chance that a left-handed batter will see a hard pitch on the first pitch of an at-bat. Right-handed hitters have a slightly more traditional breakdown, with first pitches coming in as 26% fastballs, 37% sinkers, and 1% cutters. That adds up to a roughly 64% chance that the first pitch will be a hard pitch, as you might expect.
We can already see that Jimenez likes to pitch backwards. The above percentages mean that there is a 47% chance that the first pitch to a lefty will be a slider, splitter, change up or curveball. For righties, that percentage is slightly lower at 36%. Fellow BtBS writer Chris Moran previously explored pitching backwards and its virtues, an article that provides some insight into why this works for Jimenez.
Jimenez doesn’t just pitch backwards though. Previously, we identified that the two outcomes Jimenez shoots for are strikeouts and ground balls. If Jimenez falls behind the batter, it becomes less likely that he will be able to bounce back and strike them out. As a result, Jimenez alters his approach and throws pitches that are likely to get ground balls. If a left-handed hitter gets ahead of him, there is a 79% chance that a groundball inducing pitch will be coming next. That comes in the form of sinkers (51%), sliders (14%), and splitters (14%). Right-handers have a 77% chance of seeing one of those three pitches, though their breakdown is dominated by sinkers (50%) and sliders (25%) rather than splitters (2%). This is Jimenez pitching to the situation, and there isn’t much getting around that. Each of these pitches has varying success at inducing grounders, but, in general, all three are effective. His sinker gets induces ground balls on 49.71% of the balls put in play, the slider comes in at 38.96%, and the splitter 52.44%.
Another notable trend is that Jimenez’s fastball usage spikes with two strikes, while his sinker usage takes a nose dive. In this scenario, a strikeout is tantalizingly close, and Jimenez wants to use the pitch that has the best chance of getting that final whiff. His fastball does just that nearly twice as well as his sinker, with the fastball generating whiffs on 21.48% of swings, compared to just 11.32% for the sinker. It’s interesting to note that his slider usage to righties drops, but he does pickup his splitter usage as the count goes on. Since his splitter get whiffs on 32.60% of swings, it makes a nice compliment to the slider which generates whiffs on 30.80% of swings.
The data also seems to suggest that Jimenez makes a concerted effort to avoid sacrifice flies. Jimenez’s fastball gives up line drives and fly balls far more often than his other pitches. As a result, he avoids throwing it unless he’s ahead in the count with a runner on third who could easily be driven in by a fly ball. There’s only a 6% chance that a lefty will get a first pitch fastball with a runner on third. Right-handed batters don’t have it much better, with just an 8% chance of getting that fastball. Your odds don’t improve much getting ahead in the count either, as lefties get 8% fastballs when ahead, while righties get a modest bump to 9%.
In fact, left-handed batters coming up to the plate against Jimenez with a runner on third have only a 9% chance of seeing a hard pitch. In this situation Jimenez threw 6% fastballs, 3% sinkers, and 0% cutters. That leaves you with a 91% chance of seeing a slider, curve, change up, or splitter.
If you’re a righty, you have a little bit better odds. There’s an 8% chance you see a fastball to start the count, a 16% chance it’s a sinker and a 70%(!!!) chance that you get a first-pitch slider. For context, let’s take a look at the number of pitches these percentages made up. Jimenez faced this situation exactly 37 times last season. Three times he started off the at-bat with a fastball. Six times it was a sinker. Once each, the batter was treated to a curveball and change up. The other 26 at-bats started off with the right-handed power pitcher delivering a slider.
As you can clearly see fro the data, Jimenez tailors his approach to the batter at the plate, and the situation he finds himself in. A pitcher’s approach should not be context neutral. Most pitchers adjust based on handedness from the batter, but few adjust based on the situation. Fewer still are able to do it to the level that Jimenez does. Those nuances I listed above? Those are just a few of the dozens of context-dependent adjustments Jimenez appears to make.
The insights above are certainly interesting, and I think that there is a lot to be learned from how Jimenez approaches various at-bats. This is especially true if you’re a young pitcher on the Orioles’ staff who is looking to maximize their talents with a better approach. It’s not accurate to say that simply because a pitcher is a veteran that he will be a positive influence on younger pitchers on the staff, but this seems like it could definitely be the case with Jimenez.
Paul Hoynes, a Cleveland beat writer indicates that Jimenez was a model citizen for the Indians, despite their lack of interest in bringing him back for 2014 and beyond:
Jimenez credited Callaway with smoothing his complicated delivery to a point where he could repeat it on a consistent basis.
The Indians never had a problem with Jimenez’s effort and personality. He worked tirelessly to correct his flaws on the mound and caused none of the clubhouse tension that swirled around him in Colorado.
On Jimenez’s Strong Second Half & Competition
The final point for this post is about some of the biggest ‘drawbacks’ going around re: Jimenez’s performance in 2013. The first is that his performance peaked in the second half hiding a dreadful overall performance. The biggest thing is that his strikeout rate jumped in the second half which suggests that his performance was unsustainable. To refute that we look at his whiff rate, which is swings and misses per swing. Below is an image of Jimenez’s performance for each pitch in that statistic over the course of the season, courtesy of Brooks Baseball:
As you can see, his whiff rate stay pretty consistent overall despite variations among different pitches. He did pick up use of the splitter as the season went on, and his whiff rate climbed for that specific pitch. That however, is something that he can bring over to 2014, and doesn’t support the narrative that his strikeout rate isn’t sustainable.
Finally, many claim that Jimenez beat up on bad competition leading to an inflated ERA and FIP. This claim is easy to refute by simply looking at the numbers.
Jimenez had nine starts against playoff teams, 10 starts against teams with winning records, and 13 starts against teams with losing records. Data sourced from here.
From those starts, Jimenez posted the following results:
vs. playoff teams: 48 IP, .223 BAA, 4.69 ERA
vs. other teams over .500: 57.1 IP, .227 BAA, 2.98 ERA
vs. sub-.500 teams: 77.1 IP, .257 BAA, 2.68 ERA
Data sourced from here. As you can see above he dominated bad teams, pitched well against teams above .500, and pitched average or slightly worse against playoff teams. This pattern likely holds true for most good/great pitchers who face varying levels of competition over the course of a season.
Signing Jimenez was a coup for Dan Duquette and the Orioles’ front office in my opinion. He’s a solid pitching option who has a track record of being very good. He’s had one bad season overall, and does have a tendency to be pretty volatile on a game by game basis. Over the course of a season though, he’s a very good and reliable pitcher who will anchor the top end of the rotation. He’s not an ace, but he’s not being paid like one either.
Jimenez’s signing has trickle down effects for the rest of the rotation, Kevin Gausman, and all the young pitchers on staff. His impact will be a net positive both on the field, as the stats suggest, and off the field. This is exactly the type of move the Orioles should make if they want to remain competitive in the AL East.