The fate of the Indians' 2011 season hinged heavily on the performance of Ubaldo Jimenez who, in his 11 starts following "the trade," was not good. The fate of the 2012 Indians' also rested to a large extent, 176 innings at least, on Ubaldo Jimenez, who was not good. At least he was mostly not good. Like Billy Crystal checking the vitals of Cary Elwes, it might be worth figuring out if Ubaldo was completely not good or just mostly not good, given his importance, again, heading into 2013.
The only reason to think that Ubaldo is not completely not good was the seven game stretch Ubaldo had last year between June 5th and July 7th, a stretch that saw Ubaldo put up 6.2 innings per start, a 2.93 ERA, a .669 OPS against, and a health 44:16 K:BB ratio. You might recall that the season still had a veneer of hope at this point, with Ubaldo's mini-resurgence a major source of those good feelings. At least in terms of outcome, this stretch from Jimenez appears superficially similar to his success in Colorado back in 2010 when most people would agree that he was a legitimately good pitcher (at least All-Star and Cy Young voters).
- 2010: 2.88 ERA, 6.2 IP/start, 8.7 K/9, 3.7 BB/9
- 2012 (good stretch): 2.93 ERA, 6.2 IP/start, 8.6 K/9, 3.1 BB/9
Of course, to Cleveland's misfortune, Jimenez pitched before June 5th and after July 7th, with much less attractive results.
- 2012 (the rest): 6.27 ERA, 5.1 IP/start, 6.8 K/9, 5.4 BB/9, .870 OPS against
To try and get some sense as to what went right and wrong for Jimenez, I thought it would be useful to compare the good stretch from last season with "the rest" of last season, in addition to his 2010 numbers. There are some basic differences we can identify using fangraph's pitch F/X data. First, the overall assortment of pitches thrown across these three periods is fairly similar:
Fastball: 54-61%, Slider: 13-15%, Curve: 9-10%, Change: 8-20%
Fangraphs algorithm differentiates between a two-seam and four-seam fastball, and it should be noted that according to them, Ubaldo v.2010 was primarily a two-seamer and Ubaldo v.2012 is primarily a four-seamer (though he regularly uses both in both intervals). Related, Ubaldo v.2012 has lost significant velocity from the earlier version, working in the 90-95 range, rather than the 93-97 range. Ubaldo's breaking pitches have not seen significant velocity changes, and the separation between his fastball and slider have remained stable, despite the loss of velocity.
The fastball is important because, again using fangraph's numbers, Ubaldo's 2010 success was driven to a huge degree by his fastball, which was one of the best pitches in baseball that season. The past two years it has been a losing pitch, reaching dreadful levels last season. Another major difference between 2010 and 2012 is the addition of a splitter to Ubaldo's pitching mix (this is using Brooksbaseball f/x data, which I think is better). Ubaldo uses all of his pitches against batters from both sides, but relies more heavily on his slider and curve against RHH (23%/11%, vs 11%/6% against LFF) and his changeup and splitter against LHH (7%/18% vs. 2%/6% against RHH). Looking back at 2010, he actually used the curve twice as often against LHH, and relied more heavily on his slider (against RHH) and changeup (against LHH).
Ubaldo's general abandonment of his changeup is interesting as, in terms of pitch outcomes, it has remained one of his best pitches.
Perhaps the most noticeable change relative to 2010, aside from the drop in fastball velocity, is the decline in control. Jimenez has always struggled with control, but in his more successful days back in 2010 threw all of his pitches aside from the curve for strikes more than 60% of the time. In 2012, the only pitch he reached that level of control on was his newly crafted splitter.
Here, and perhaps this is the most important takeaway from this whole piece, it should be noted that Jimenez's successful streak in 2012 also coincided with his best control. If Jimenez's control stems from incredibly poor mechanics that he fails to repeat consistently, a spell of improved mechanical control might be the best explanation for his success in June/early July. With the drop in velocity, Jimenez has lost an incremental, but significant percentage of swings and misses on his fastball. Jimenez's success in those seven starts in 2012 was predicated less on the high velocity swings and misses he generated in 2010, and more on the ability to keep hitters from making solid contact, evidenced by increased numbers of fouls, pop ups, and a lower line-drive and HR-rate during that stretch.
To the extent that there is much of a takeaway to this, it is that Ubaldo has lost velocity and needs to be a different pitcher than he was in 2010 to succeed. He still has what is almost certainly the best arsenal of stuff as any Indians pitcher in the rotation. Ubaldo's success these days is predicated more on out-pitching hitters rather than blowing by them. This, in turn, depends heavily on Ubaldo's control, which mean that he needs to improve the consistency of his mechanics. Everyone who watched Jimenez pitch last year could see that he looked like a guy who had no idea where the pitch was going when it left his hand. In his motion, he seemed to fall almost randomly and haphazardly off the mound. Hopefully the new Indians coaching staff has more success in reaching and stabilizing Jimenez in 2013.
Ubaldo's keys to success
- Fewer balls (<40% on his pitches, particularly his fastballs)
- More swings and misses (particularly on his fastballs)
- Better utilization of his changeup
- Fewer HRs off his fastballs (four-seam, two-seam, splitter)
- All of the above predicated on improved mechanics