Is Ubaldo Back?

Last summer when the Indians dealt for Ubaldo Jimenez, there is no doubt they felt like they were acquiring a young front line starter.  That hasn’t been the case yet.  Jimenez made 11 starts for the Tribe last year, and posted an ugly 5.10 ERA.  Advanced metrics suggested he was unlucky, with his xFIP, FIP, tERA, and SIERA sitting in the high three range.  He was striking batters out and keeping the ball on the ground, but his walk rate of 3.72 BB/9 was a smidge on the high side of acceptable.  If you look at Jimenez’s career, walks have always been a part of his game, and the rest of his skill set has helped him pitch well in spite of them.  This season, the wheels have fallen off the bus for Jimenez, and his ERA sits at 4.91, and he has nearly as many walks, 43 (none intentional), as strikeouts, 44, in 69.2 innings pitched.  In his last two starts, though, he has issued just one walk, while striking out 11 in 13.2 innings.  Has he righted the ship?

It’s hard to argue with his walk-to-strikeout rate in his last two starts, and the Indians and his fantasy owners have to be encouraged by the turns.  The starts came against the the Cardinals, fourth in baseball in runs scored, and the Tigers, 14th in runs scored.  Those are two solid offerings, and indicate Jimenez didn’t pick on weak opposition.  With that information in mind, it is easy to see why his ownership is on the rise in ESPN leagues, and likely in leagues at other fantasy host sites as well. 

Unfortunately, a look deeper leads me to believe he’s far from back to his vintage form.  The first, and most noticeable difference from Jimenez this year than in years past, is a sharp decline in his velocity.  Two years ago, his four-seam fastball averaged 96.57 mph according to his Brooks Baseball player card.  Last year, his velocity on the four-seamer dropped to 94.21 mph, and this season it has dipped even further to 93.15 mph.  That’s a nose dive of nearly 3.5 mph in two seasons.  His heater is humming a little faster this month, 93.96 mph, and he was able to hit a max velocity of 96.7 mph in his last start, but that would have been an average pitch for him in 2010. 

Obviously velocity isn’t everything when evaluating a pitcher, but there are further causes for concern with Jimenez.  His outstanding groundball rate that sat in the upper-40 percent range in 2010 and 2011, and was above 50 percent in 2008 and 2009, has plummeted to 38.4 percent this year.  In his starts against the Cardinals and Tigers, his groundball rate is a paltry 34.2 percent.  Groundballs are preferred to flyballs because they do less damage, and are unable to leave the yard.  However, pitchers have been able to get by with low groundball rates, so perhaps Jimenez can.

Or, perhaps he can’t.  Flyball pitchers tend to get away with that approach by missing bats, and racking up strikeouts.  Jimenez is doing neither of those things.  His swinging strike rate has taken a free fall.  In 2010 his swinging strike rate was 9.1 percent and the league average was 8.5 percent.  The league average has gone up each of the last two seasons, to 8.6 percent in 2011, and 8.8 percent this year.  Meanwhile, Jimenez’s swinging strike rate has fallen to 7.5 percent in 2011, and bottomed out at 5.9 percent this year.  One would think with a slight uptick in strikeouts this month, he’s getting more swinging strikes, but that hasn’t been the case, as his rate this month is identical to his season rate of 5.9 percent.  According to his Brooks Baseball PITCHf/x data, he has had a lower whiff rate on his fastballs in June, but a higher whiff rate on his off speed and breaking pitches.  Since Jimenez leans on his four-seam fastball and sinker heavily, and his usage of both pitches combined is up a bit this month (61 percent for the season, 64 percent in June), it seems counter intuitive that he’d see his strikeout rate rise this month.  If I were to hazard a guess as to why this is the case, it would be that his slight uptick in strikes thrown (57.9 percent strike rate prior to June, 59.8 percent strike rate in June), is putting him in more two strike counts where he can strike batters out. 

Oddly enough, Jimenez pristine walk rate in his last two starts has come with a massive drop in his first pitch strike rate.  For the season, he is starting batters off with a strike 57.0 percent of the time, just a bit below the league average of 59.7 percent.  In June, his first pitch strike rate is 51.9 percent.  Strange, and another reason to believe that his recent run is nothing more than a fluke.  At this point it is beginning to feel like I’m kicking a man while he’s down, and piling on.  Thankfully, there is only one more point which must be made to illustrate how bad Jimenez has been, and why he’s likely to continue to pitch terribly.

He isn’t fooling hitters.  For his career, Jimenez has induced swings on 26 percent of pitches thrown outside the strike zone.  In 2010 and 2011, his o-swing rate was over 29 percent.  This year, he’s down to an o-swing rate of 21 percent, which is 8.9 percent below league average.  Incredibly, that percentage has actually dropped this month, to 18.9 percent.  The result is batters going after pitches they can hit, and a career worst contact percentage against.  In short, Jimenez is broken, and it is going to take more than two starts to prove he’s fixed.  If you’re an owner in a large league that has held out hope on Jimenez, now is a good time to try and sell him at 25 cents on the dollar.  If you’re an owner in a league where he’s sitting in the free agent pool, leave him there.