Back in 2010 a pair of big, young, intimidating, and most of all hard-throwing aces were given the honor of starting the All-Star game thanks in part to their superb pitching. On the American League side of things they elected to start David Price, who was an impressive 12-4 with a 2.42 ERA at the time. The National League opted to go with Ubaldo Jimenez, a towering right-hander who had been the talk of baseball during the first half because of his gaudy 15-1 record and 2.20 ERA. Both pitchers would make the most of their chance to start the All-Star game, throwing a pair of shutout innings apiece. Both of these aces also experienced another first at the end of the year, landing in the top 3 of the AL and NL Cy Young vote respectively.
Price, as everybody knows, has gone on to become one of the 3 or 4 best pitchers in baseball, one good enough to snatch a Cy Young award away from Justin Verlander in 2012. His fastball is still one of the hardest to hit in the Majors but it’s his secondary stuff that makes him so devastating to hitters. He works in a nasty curveball and a tumbling change-up, seemingly adding new pitches to his repertoire each offseason. In short, David Price has learned how to pitch.
Ubaldo Jimenez, on the other hand, has only experienced disappointment since reaching his peak in 2010. He struggles were so bad the following year that Colorado shipped him out to Cleveland for a package of prospects just a year after he was the starter for the National League in the All-Star game. His fastball velocity has taken a severe nosedive and Ubaldo’s control, which was always spotty even when he was at his best, has eroded over the past couple years.
Now a full two-and-a-half years removed from his dominant peak, Ubaldo Jimenez looks like a shell of his former self. After Tuesday night’s 2nd inning fireworks show that saw the Red Sox score 7 runs of Jimenez, his ERA stands at an unsightly 11.25. He looked absolutely lost on the mound, throwing just 27 strikes in 59 pitches and during that horrible 2nd inning Jimenez walked a run in on two different occasions. So, what’s changed for Ubaldo? Why, unlike David Price, did Jimenez’s progress as a pitcher stall after the 2010 season? And is their any chance he can be a respectable big league pitcher again?
First let’s take a look at the numbers. From the day he debuted in 2006 until the finale of the 2010 season, Ubaldo went 50-36 with a 3.52 ERA (130 ERA+) while striking out just over 8 batters per 9 while walking 4. Those are pretty solid peripherals, especially when you consider the fact that Jimenez made just over half his starts in the hitter haven known as Coors Field. More importantly, Jimenez was annually able to rank among the league leaders for fastest fastball, topping out at an average of 96+ mph each year from 2006 through 2010.
But that all began to change in the spring of 2011. Throughout his first few starts Jimenez appeared to be laboring and he was only able to dial his heater up to the 92-94 mph range, which is a severe drop-off in velocity. Ubaldo’s velocity improved as the summer months rolled around but he never again approached the consistent 96+ mph he was hitting during his magical 2010 run. So are his problems really as simple as a drop in velocity? I’d argue that losing a couple of miles per hour off the fastball has certainly made Jimenez easier to hit but there are plenty of All-Star pitchers who make a living in the 92-94 mph range. So why can’t Ubaldo?
The answers appear to lie in Jimenez’s breaking pitches and his windup. When Ubaldo was schooling hitters back in 2010 he was able to get his secondary offerings over the plate, which made his fastball all the more effective. But for the past couple of years, Jimenez’s control over his breaking balls has wavered. In 2011, the first year of his struggles, he threw his slider and curveball for a strike only 52% of the time, which effectively means hitters can lay off the pitch to wait for a fastball.
Now, normally when a pitcher struggles to find his location with his breaking pitches it’s due to some sort of mechanical issue. Jimenez’s problems appear to be no different. New Indians’ pitching coach Mickey Calloway has been working with Jimenez on being more fluid with his windup, cutting out a momentary pause in his delivery, while keeping his front shoulder pointed toward the plate. By keeping his shoulder square toward the plate, Ubaldo’s right arm will follow suit thus leading to a more repeatable arm slot when he throws. The more Jimenez can find the same arm slot the more success he can have throwing strikes, or at least that’s the idea.
It’s also fair to ask whether or not these alterations to his windup will have any effect. After all, Jimenez has already worked with 2 different pitching coaches on recapturing his 2010 form and all that’s led to is a 19-32 record with a 5.23 ERA. Jimenez may just be a pitcher who requires a dominant fastball to succeed at the highest level.