MLB: Houston Astros at Cleveland Indians

Which Ubaldo Jimenez is for real? Is the guy who pitched well below replacement level for the better part of a year for real? Is the guy who nearly walked away with the National League Cy Young award in the first half of 2009 for real?

Is the guy who nearly lost his roster spot for the 2013 Indians for real? Is that guy, the guy who had his spot in the rotation skipped as the team looked to integrate Danny Salazar into their mix, is that who the Baltimore Orioles just signed for a reported four years and $50 million?

Or did they sign the guy who dug down and learned to live at 93 mph, instead of the 97 mph of his youth? The guy who learned that pitching inside is okay even if your fastball ain’t what it used to be, that getting ahead works wonders when your stuff is still pretty good. That guy? Because that guy was downright nasty in his final 13 starts of the year. He struck out 100 batters against just 27 walks in 84 innings. He allowed just three home runs and posted a 1.84 ERA.

If that guy’s real, the Orioles got a bargain. They got a number two style-starter at Ricky Nolasco prices. That’s nice work if you can get it.

What we know about Ubaldo Jimenez

It’s a battle of “small sample size” versus “demonstrable dynamic changes leading to improved process and positive results.” Did Ubaldo do just enough to earn himself a payday or did the baseball gods smile on him for 13 starts?

It’s really interesting if you drill down and look closely that this tiny sample. A sample too small from which to draw any grand, sweeping conclusions but one in which a few key facts stand out:

  1. His batting average on balls in play actually went up. Often a great stretch of play hints back to a few fluky measures, namely in-play average and the like. But Ubaldo allowed hits on a higer percentage of balls in play over his final appearances in a Cleveland uniform, up to .313 from .298 across his first 19 starts.
  2. He threw way more strikes. Compared to the first “half” of his season, Ubaldo Jimenez saw a much larger percentage of his pitches called as strikes. Does that mean he actually threw more strikes? This is where we enter the murky world of “quality pitches”, while admitting that Jimenez showed much more command of his pitches in this hot streak.
  3. His mechanical changes are very real. It isn’t as though Ubaldo Jimenez threw a switch in the middle of 2013 and suddenly became better. Paul Hoynse of the Cleveland Plain-Dealer details the process of ironing out Ubaldo’s mechanical troubles began last winter, when Cleveland introduced their big righty to another new pitching coach.

Mickey Callaway worked to keep Jimenez on a straight path to the plate, improving his command and, perhaps, opening up the inside part of the plate against right-handed batters. This ability to work inside was a hallmark of Better Ubaldo, generating much weaker contact and setting up his pitches on the outer half as well.

In addition to improving his command, a cursory look through some of the pitch fx numbers suggests his stuff improved as the season progress as well. More movement on all pitches, his fastball in particular.

The change in Jimenez is most apparent during the final months of the season but the entire 2013 season demonstrated improvement over his terrible 2012. He pitched 158 innings of 2.72 ERA baseball from May 1st onward, showing the same strikeout stuff the whole way.

What we don’t know about Ubaldo Jimenez

Is there reason to believe these changes are permanent? Absolutely. Is there reason to believe the magic pixie dust Mickey Callaway dusted on him in the DR this fateful winter will wear off under the watchful eye of another pitching coach? There is plenty of reason to believe that.

It is reckless to assume one pitching coach knows the right combination of words to unlock the potential of his pitchers but it appears, from what is written in the link above an elsewhere, the Jimenez and Callaway had a good thing going. Now that thing is gone, leaving the Orioles with an expensive investment and a rather shoddy history of pitcher development.

Baltimore is not quite as nice a place to pitch as Cleveland, given the extremely short porch in right field and the tougher level of competition (though Baseball Prospectus rates Ubaldo’s quality of competition in 2013 as exactly league average).

So we don’t know if these changes will stick and we don’t know if the Ubaldo the Orioles signed can perform at this ace level for more than a few starts. We, the whole world, knows he will give up more than three home runs in his next 84 innings. The improved infield defense Baltimore offers will certainly help Jimenez, as it will help any pitcher with a pulse and two legs.

The Orioles hope they signed the near-ace but, even if he’s more of a back of the rotation plugger, they’ll still be okay. Even when bad, Ubaldo was durable and good for 32 (slightly awful starts) in a year. The O’s used 14 different starters in 2013 and could use some stability in their rotation. With Jimenez, the Orioles gain a little bit of stability. Adding Yoon Sook-min gives them depth and options as they groom Kevin Gausman for a starting job, as Keith Law suggests.

This is what Baltimore bought in Ubaldo Jimenez – upside as a nice cherry on top of a durable starter. They guaranteed a fourth year at the off chance his late season gains are real and he’s ready to re-assert himself at the top of a rotation. A good deal for a team with a huge offense that just needed a few more known commodities in their rotation. A good deal for a pitcher trying to re-establish his reputation as one of the game’s best and put a terrible season in the rearview mirror. A good deal, frankly.

Brooks Baseball Player page
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Some information via ESPN Stats & Info