Well it’s a few weeks overdue, but Chris Antonetti has finally confirmed that Ubaldo Jimenez is having issues with his mechanics. Not that it really needed to be said – after all, you don’t lead the league in walks and wild pitches with flawless mechanics – but through the first two months of the season, every time Antonetti or Acta has spoken publicly about Jimenez, their responses have felt a little disingenuous. Despite their insistence that Jimenez was progressing, all evidence pointed the contrary.
But any pitcher can go through a rough spell. In 1996, for example, Orel Hershiser posted a 6.64 ERA through his first 12 starts – even worse than Jimenez’s current 5.79 through 11. But Hershiser caught fire over the next two months, allowing just six earned runs over the course of his next nine starts (0.85 ERA) and once again established himself as a front-of-the-rotation starter.
So why can’t Jimenez do the same?
Hershiser’s rough start in ’96 could be attributed, at least partially, to bad luck. For starters, Hershiser yielded a .367 batting average on balls in play (BAbip), which indicates a high rate of bad luck. With an established pitcher such as Hershiser, one can expect that number or level out to around .300 over a larger sample size. And sure enough, he followed up that improbably high rate with an improbably low .279 over his next nine starts and by season’s end his BAbip had leveled out to a more reasonable .316.
Jimenez, however, already has a BAbip of .279 – 10 percentage points below the league average, and seven percentage points below his career average. This means that if Jimenez were experiencing normal results on balls in play his ERA would actually be higher than it is today. As a result, his xFIP (expected fielding independent pitching – an estimation of ERA with normalized balls in play and home run ratios) is .16 runs higher than his actual ERA.
Another reason for Hershiser’s turnaround was the fact that he never lost his command. During his rough 12-game stretch, Hershiser walked just 19 batters in 62.1 innings. With his typically low walk rate intact, it was no surprise that Hershiser got back on track once the balls started bouncing his way. The same cannot be said for Jimenez.
Jimenez has always walked batters at a relatively high rate – something which can be said of many power pitchers. But this season, Jimenez has lost the strike zone. PitchFX tracks a statistic called “non-competitive pitches” which essentially counts the number of pitches thrown so far out of the strike zone that you can’t reasonably expect a batter to swing.
For some pitchers, these non-competitive pitches are an effective tool, especially for guys with hard-breaking sliders and curves. For example, Braves setup man Johnny Venters, who possesses a devastating slider, has induced a swing on 23.2% of his non-competitive pitches. Jimenez, however, has the 5th-lowest chase percentage (min. 100 pitches) at just 3.6%, indicating that his wild pitches are fooling no one.
So what has gone wrong for Ubaldo?
As Chris Antonetti said, it’s all about the mechanics. It’s tough to know exactly what has gone wrong without sitting down and reviewing the video with Jimenez and pitching coach Scott Radinsky, but we can establish where the changes have occurred. By analyzing Jimenez’s release points, which are available on Fan Graphs, we can compare his release points this season to his breakout performance in 2010.
As you can see, Jimenez has made some fairly dramatic changes. To be fair, some of these changes may be intentional alterations in how he throws certain pitches. However, we also see a much wider area and more stray release points, especially off to the left of the image (which would be Jimenez’s right).
It’s tough to predict what’s next for Jimenez. He clearly has the stuff to be a dominant ace, but his recent performance provides little reason to believe he’s close to turning it around. It’s nearing the point where the Indians may need to determine if Jimenez is capable of sorting these issues out on the job, or if he needs to be shutdown or sent to the bullpen to work out the kinks. Their decision could have significant implications in the AL Central race.