What if I told you, that the night is darkest just before the dawn?
That this night, in everlasting sorrow, ceased to be a dream, but rather a living nightmare. Though this night, with the light on its heels, is seeing the sun rise over the horizon.
If Orioles righty Ubaldo Jimenez were to somehow be deemed fit for his own ESPN 30 For 30, I’d imagine the trailer would sound something like that. However, I’m still not sure I was able to capture Jimenez’s incessant doom and gloom. For the first half of the 2016 season, he wasn’t Ubaldo-ly bad, but pitching to a level of ineptitude even Jimenez himself had not yet conquered.
Jimenez more or less aligned with his expected level of performance in 2015, tossing a 4.11 ERA/4.01 FIP in 184.0 innings, expedited by a career-low 8.6 percent walk rate. His first-half of last season (2.81 ERA/3.27 FIP/7.7 percent walks) seemed too good to be true, and it was. Jimenez faltered over his last 84.2 innings, accruing a 5.63 ERA/4.88 FIP despite — in Ubaldian terms — a decent enough 9.7 percent walk rate. Taking both the good and the bad, Jimenez’s 2015 season showed he very well could be the average-looking starter the Orioles pride themselves on stockpiling.
Where the likes of Yovani Gallardo, Tyler Wilson, Mike Wright and now Wade Miley cast shadows of doubt, Jimenez’s perpetuating cumulonimbus cloud of despair became an every-fifth-day routine of boos and early exits over his 81.2 first-half innings. Among starting pitchers with at least 80.0 innings at the end of June, Jimenez’s 7.35 ERA was the highest in baseball, as was his .380 BABIP. His -2.38 WPA and 12.5 percent free pass rate trailed only Francisco Liriano. Jimenez was yet again falling victim to his inability to throw within the strike zone.
Jimenez and his $13 million price tag were both airdropped into the bullpen following his start on July 8, where he pitched only 1.1 inning, allowing five runs on five hits against the Angels. The 44,317 people in attendance to celebrate the Orioles 50th anniversary of the team’s 1966 World Series championship saw manager Buck Showalter finally wave the white flag. Pitching only twice over the next month, the Orioles’ attempts to hide Jimenez were interrupted only by a pair of mop-up appearances, leaving the club’s costliest pitching asset in a limbo even Clay Buchholz wouldn’t appreciate.
Then as fate would see fit, Jimenez got another chance.
Chris Tillman was scheduled to pitch against the Nationals on August 25, but shoulder bursitis in his throwing arm forced him onto the 15-day disabled list, with Showalter opting to use Jimenez once again. In that start, and the three starts to follow, Jimenez regained his mojo.
Stuff has never been an issue for Jimenez. His inability to compact his 6’5, 210-pound frame, however, has lingered as his biggest burden. To his credit, he’s made a few in-season adjustments to dumb down his delivery.
Pitching, a lot like hitting, is very personal. It doesn’t matter what your stance looks like, or how wacky your delivery is. Both a hitter or pitcher can present themselves in any way they choose, as long as the fundamentals required to complete their designated action remain intact. For Jimenez, his herky-jerky delivery was causing more problems than it was solving.
This is Ubaldo back in June, amidst the worst of his struggles. His patented arm flail pre-delivery was being thrusted all the way to his backside, while the slight bend in his top half wasn’t doing him any favors. The combination of the two forces what was already a lot of moving parts to move out of sync. As he requires his arm to catch up the rest of his body, his front side opens up rather than staying closed, creating far too many cases of unpredictable arm angles and thusly pitch locations.
This is Jimenez on September 5, much more enclosed and compact. He’s traded the flail for a more traditional downward load, while his top half is noticeably more solidified. When Ubaldo is quieter in his delivery, good things happen, and as it turns out good things have happened.
As his mechanics have improved, Jimenez’s release point has continued to find a place of more stabilized success. The bend in his delivery caused Jimenez to throw from a more 3/4’s release point, where he’s now at a more fundamental straight over the top get-out. Strong mechanics tend to lead to strong results, meaning Jimenez is simplifying the frustrating causation of his futility: fastball command.
The foundation for every pitcher not named Rich Hill starts with quality fastball command, and over these stretch of games, Jimenez has returned to the mound possessing his own brand of totality. Jimenez has a very good two-seam fastball, and he’s been much better utilizing its strong arm-side run away from lefties and into righties. Not necessarily working down in the zone as much as he had, he’s traded a more up-and-down fastball attack, instead working more corner-to-corner. With the kind of fastball he has and cementation of his delivery, this means more fade more often, and that’s going to do wonders in avoiding the barrel of the bat.
Folks have had a rough go of it trying to hit the Jimenez fastball, and it’s much to do with him managing the pitch more consistently. On the corners, and even over the plate, the tail on his fastball has caused problems. The opposition’s inability to hit the fastball has also been made possible by an increasingly varying approach to his repertoire. His curveball usage is up by 10 percent in comparison to earlier in the year, while he’s utilized his cutter with more frequency. As good a splitter as Jimenez has, the combination of fastball command and working the splitter down in the zone creates the kind of masking effect making both pitches tougher to identify.
Over this two-week stretch, Jimenez has done more actual pitching than he has all season.
Jimenez is never going to be a complete package, but he’s nearly doubled his K-BB rate from the first half (5.5 percent) to the second half (10.2 percent), and while the walks have taken a dip, so has his risk of contact. Ground balls and fly balls have made up 95.6 percent of surrendered contact in September, leading to a 2.78 ERA over his last four starts. Jimenez is dialed into the strike zone, and the numbers are proof of the quality of stuff he has when he is indeed working the boundaries of the zone.
For Ubaldo, it’s a question of how long such a run of games can continue, given his history of mechanical breakdowns, but the self he’s working in at this moment is an example of how he maximizes his current form. The Orioles, deadlocked in not only a very tight AL Wild Card race, but as of today, begin a series with AL East leading Red Sox trailing only by two games. In Jimenez’s almighty rise, the O’s are 3-1 in his four starts, with every win as crucial as the next. The former streak-buster has become a slump-buster.
Baltimore center fielder Adam Jones spoke to the Baltimore Sun on Saturday following Jimenez’s latest outing, a seven-inning gem where he scattered two runs on four hits.
“But right now, these last three or four starts that he’s done, I think he’s earned every dollar that we’re paying him. He’s doing a tremendous job, and the best thing about him is he’s kept a level head the entire time, through trials and tribulations and through success. He’s maintained a level head through it.”
Given the rude nature of where Jimenez was only a month ago, and the timing of his spark, Jones may be right.
Nick is a weekly writer for Beyond the Box Score, as well as Camden Chat, SB Nation’s Baltimore Orioles blog. If you so choose, you can follow his Orioles musings on Twitter at @Swissere.