Counting on Ubaldo is still like playing Vegas

Ubaldo could be an Ace or a Joker
Ubaldo could be an Ace or a Joker

(updated at 8:30 PM on 3/26/13)

Let’s get the emotional drama out of this right away. I am not an Ubaldo “hater” as his supporters often call anyone who questions his ability to consistently win major league baseball games as a starting pitcher. I actually love Jimenez for one simple biased reason. He is a Cleveland Indian! I want each and every player on the Tribe 25 man active roster to be superior and unquestioned in their ability. I want to believe each one is a winner and has the emotional and physical tools to be successful. Ubaldo is no exception.

Now that the emotional war between Jimenez supporters and “haters” is removed from this post, it would be wise for all Indian fans to be willing to look at Ubaldo in a rational and reasoned way. Ubaldo Jimenez was for 1/2 of one year a masterful and dominant pitcher. He was an Ace of Aces. Virtually unhittable and extremely successful. That was in the first half of the 2010 season. Before then, he was a very solid pitcher with a good ERA and a very good hits to innings pitched ratio. In fact, even through the end of the 2010 season (and he had a marginal second half), his career ERA was 3.53. He had allowed only 604 hits in 727 major league innings. Those are outstanding numbers even for the National League. In my view hits to innings pitched is one of the best ways to judge a pitcher. Since the 2010 season, his ERA is 5.04 and he has allowed 376 hits in 364 innings. This is a dramatic change for the worse.

Now the glass half full crowd is saying “Well, that was primarily in the American League where the ERAs are higher and the hitters are better.” The glass half empty crowd is saying that they knew all along that he was no good and those statistics support their view. I am simply saying that the statistical facts are a cause for some concern and supports a need for further examination of Ubaldo’s regression since the first half of 2010. This has all been well documented in the standard press articles over the past two years. But it is the analysis that follows by an amateur fan like myself that makes the Indians front office cringe at the thought of our feeble attempts to really understand what is the root cause of Ubaldo’s difficulties. This is understandable because the manager and front office always know more facts than the fans and also have the medical reports on the players. We certainly have no access to that kind of data (nor should we).

So let’s look at Ubaldo’s changes since the first half of 2010 that might explain the statistical regression. In early 2010 it was widely reported that Ubaldo’s fastball was topping out at around 98 MPH and consistently was between 96-98 MPH. Subsequent to the 2010 season (and maybe even during the 2010 season) his velocity dropped substantially to around 92-94 MPH by the beginning of the 2011 season. It could be argued that after his decrease in effectiveness during the second half of 2010 Ubaldo was trying to reduce velocity to improve command. To examine that we should look at the walks to innings pitched in the 2009 and 2010 seasons and compare them to 2011 and 2012. In 2009-2010 he issued 177 walks in 439 innings. In 2011-2012 he issued 173 walks in only 364 innings. Again, we see a substantial regression. So his drop in velocity was not to improve his command, it simply occurred. The causes for this are usually a combination of several factors, but it is safe to say that Jimenez did not plan it to happen.

Some things we do know is that he suffered a groin injury during early 2011. That can certainly affect velocity to a degree. However, that type of injury fully heals so the fact that the velocity never came back can’t be explained by the early injury. He did regain some velocity back to about 96 before the trade to Cleveland, but he never consistently showed that velocity on his fastball while pitching for Cleveland. When he did hit 96 or rarely 97 on the gun, it was only for a pitch or two and then he dropped back to about 94. The Indian front office has unfailingly attributed the velocity change and the command worsening to Ubaldo’s pitching mechanics. Well, in two years of trying to fix his mechanics there has been little change in either velocity or command. So it should be no surprise to anyone that many of us are waiting for the report that Ubaldo’s shoulder or elbow is hurt and he has been trying to pitch through it but finally couldn’t do it any more. Despite this, Ubaldo reports that he feels fine and there has never been a report of an injury or an abnormal scan to substantiate the injury theory. And I can guarantee everybody that his right arm has been scanned from forearm to shoulder by this time.

So, with mechanical adjustments unsuccessful so far and no reported injury to explain the statistical worsening, you might begin to explore his mental makeup and if that could be affecting command and velocity. Now I think it is impossible to even begin to speculate on the psychological state of a professional athlete as a fan. But Ubaldo seems to put together some of his worst performances during “big games”. I think it is fair to say that he does not display the mental toughness that you might expect in an ACE pitcher or even a solid #2 starter. He has repeatedly tried to lift up the fans by saying that his velocity will come back by (pick a date) but it never has. That makes you wonder if he was trying to convince himself as much as the fans that his velocity would return.

Another way to look at Jimenez is to use the “eye test”. There has never been a time I have watched him when his arm isn’t flying every which way and his mechanics are smooth and consistent. The result is a ball that has good movement but often misses the catcher’s mitt by a large margin. When he misses in the strike zone with those pitches, they are often hit hard and far. That is where the eye test surpasses the statistical analysis. It is easy to see with today’s HD television and pitch track graphics how the pitch ends in relation to where the catcher’s mitt was placed. Jimenez rarely if ever passes that eye test.

All of this comes together in the final result that is, sad to say, Ubaldo Jimenez. He is a hard worker and nice person by all accounts. But as a pitcher he is inconsistent and can not command the fastball to the catcher’s mitt. Because of this, the drop in velocity is critically important. With velocity in the 96-98 MPH area, those pitches that wander over the middle of the plate belt high can still be tough to center on for the hitter. If they are a little above the belt and down the middle, they are even harder to hit. But when you subtract the velocity and don’t improve the command, the results are a mediocre at best. If we think otherwise, we deceive ourselves and set expectations too high.

Remember, when CC Sabathia dropped his velocity he became an even more dominant pitcher. The reason is that his command developed to the point that it is superior. His curveball command has been good enough to keep the hitter’s honest. And, when he needs it, the velocity is still there. Ubaldo does not have the superior command necessary to follow CC’s path. If he gets it or the velocity cranks back to 96-98 with his same command, he might be a number one or two starter again. There has been nothing this spring, including his last outing, that has shown me the progression necessary. In fact, his fastball was clocking at 88-91 for some of his spring outings. That should go up again to the 92-94 range by the time the season starts but that won’t be enough without the progression in command.

My hope is that Ubaldo finds one of those two key ingredients to allow him to help lead the Indians starting staff. But, if he doesn’t, please realize what he is. He is a fourth or fifth starter that will have a few extremely good games but many mediocre performances. If we understand that, we won’t be as disappointed or as harsh in our criticism of Jimenez. That would be a good thing.

It is for all of these reasons that I disagree with the many writers who claim that Jimenez will be a key to the Indians 2013 season. I think the keys to the season will be the other 4 starters and how they perform. Without a true #1 and only a #2 starter (Masterson), it will be critical for the other 3 starters to step up their game and fill the voids in the rotation. I still hold out hope that McCallister, Kazmir, and Myers can perform at the high end of their talent to carry us through the season. Also, Carrasco and Bauer could be big later this year. And Dice-K is waiting in the wings if he can find himself. (He just signed a minor league deal today.) If Ubaldo Jimenez turns back into an ACE, the Tribe just hit a straight flush on the river. Congratulations !!

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