The Good, the Bad, and the Ubaldo: The Mercurial Nature of Baltimore’s Would-Be Ace

Rob Carr/Getty Images

At the All-Star break, one had to look hard to find pitchers who’d been better than Ubaldo Jimenez. There weren’t any in Baltimore: By FanGraphs WAR, the closest Orioles pitcher was a full win away. In Jimenez’s last start before the break, he held the Twins scoreless for five innings to lower his ERA to 2.81, with a strikeout rate of nearly a batter per inning and a ground ball rate of almost 50 percent. He was pitching as well as he had since 2010, his career year in Colorado, when he finished third in the NL Cy Young voting and, by Baseball-Reference WAR, had a strong case for second.

I picked the day before the break to try to arrange an interview with Jimenez, who’d reduced his ERA by exactly two runs compared to 2014. The article I envisioned had all the trappings of the standard redemption story, starring a written-off athlete rising from the ashes. After struggling in 2011 and 2012, Jimenez had straightened himself out down the stretch with the Indians in 2013, earning a four-year, $50 million free-agent contract from the Orioles in February 2014. Within five starts, the deal looked like a disaster. Jimenez allowed 20 runs in 27.1 April innings last season, yielding a .300/.398/.473 slash line. Although he made a modest improvement over the rest of the year, he never fully recovered his form, injuring an ankle in early July, rehabbing in the minors, and then pitching out of the pen in low-leverage spots during much of the Orioles’ stretch run. He didn’t appear in the ALDS and was left off the ALCS roster. And here he was, more than halfway through the following summer, by far the best pitcher in a potential playoff rotation.

A superstitious O’s fan might say I jinxed Ubaldo’s season. I’d argue, though, that most unexpected player performances tend to evaporate on their own. The impulse to point out a player’s performance is strongest at the peak of its improbability, which is also the point at which the player is most likely to fall off whatever tightrope he’s walking. (See Shane Greene, circa mid-April.) I sought out Ubaldo at the crest of his success, just in time to ride the regression right onto the rocks.

By the time I talked to Jimenez, he had made his first start of the second half, a clunker against Detroit in which he hemorrhaged seven runs over 4.2 innings. One off day on eight days’ rest was easy to excuse, though, especially since Jimenez had struck out five without walking anyone. “It’s just one of those games that things happen,” Jimenez said, explaining that he’d felt fine mechanically but had been hit hard at inopportune times. “There’s nothing you can do with it.” His next start, on the eve of the day the story was tentatively scheduled to run, was worse: 2.1 innings and another seven runs, this time accompanied by three walks and only two strikeouts. When the Yankees stopped scoring, Ubaldo’s ERA was a run higher than it had been when I decided to talk to him, and the straight-up redemption story no longer suited his stats.

I followed Ubaldo’s next few starts like a despondent trader who realizes he’s made a bad investment but can’t bring himself to sell. First, a seven-inning, two-run outing against the Braves — a superficial bounceback marred by a subpar strikeout-to-walk ratio. Next, another ugly loss to the Tigers: six runs in 4.2 frames. And then, on Saturday, an eight-inning, two-hit shutout of the Angels, Baltimore’s rival for a wild-card spot, with six strikeouts and only one walk: Ubaldo’s best start of the season, by Game Score.

That month-long span, which stretched from highs to lows and back again, gave me a representative sample of the authentic Ubaldo Experience. I have some sense of what it’s been like for Rockies, Indians, and Orioles fans to pull for him, and for front offices to employ him, aside from the eight-figure salary I haven’t had to pay. There’s no point in trying to time an article about Ubaldo to coincide with a string of flawless starts. He’s capable of untouchable stretches, but the disaster starts are as much a part of his past and his present as the dominant ones.

Ubaldo’s capacity to look awful and excellent in consecutive seasons and consecutive starts stems from his high-maintenance mechanics. The righty is 6-foot-5, with a waist high enough for the Hays Code, and his limbs never look like they’re all part of the same person. Even in his thirties, he throws like someone in the midst of a growth spurt.

“My mechanics are different than everybody else,” Jimenez said. In the minors, he added, many of his coaches thought he’d have to reinvent himself in order to advance. “I had a lot of people that told me, ‘Oh, you’re not going to make it. You’re not going to pitch a long time like that. You’re going to get hurt.’” Once the ugly duckling became the rare homegrown Rockie to tame Coors Field, his coaches stopped trying to tamper with what (usually) worked. But the mechanics remain an occasional impediment, both the source of Ubaldo’s success and a millstone that sometimes betrays him. “I’ve had to be good with my mechanics for a long time,” Jimenez said. “If I feel good with it, feel confidence, remind myself what I have to do, then I’m going to be able to repeat it.” If not, walks and mistakes will ensue.

Earlier this year, I asked Baseball Prospectus mechanics expert Doug Thorburn, a Jimenez scholar himself, what Ubaldo was doing differently in 2015. “Ubaldo has looked much more stable this season, and it was noticeable from his first start of the year,” Thorburn wrote back. “For the last few years Ubaldo had a lot of ‘wobble’ that disrupted his balance, particularly in the X plane (side-to-side, 1B-to-3B), as he struggled to keep his head over his center-of-mass through lift and stride. That wobble has been greatly reduced this season, and he has been much more consistent with the overall positioning of his delivery — his saloon-door stride used to be erratic such that he landed in a different spot on every pitch, but this season he has been able to repeat the position of foot strike with improved regularity. He has also done a better job of staying closed with the upper half until after foot strike, rather than flying open prematurely, an element that was central to his strong run to finish the 2013 season.”

According to Jimenez, his success early this season was an argument in favor of accumulating coaches. Last season, he worked with Orioles pitching coach Dave Wallace and bullpen coach Dom Chiti, but this year, just in time for spring training, the Orioles hired Ramon Martinez — who also came close to winning Cy Youngs in his twenties — as a special assignment pitching coordinator. His first assignment was Ubaldo. “I started working with [Martinez] every day, watching videos trying to get better with the mechanics, trying to talk about the entirety of the game, like what pitches to use with different hitters,” Jimenez said. “We started working on trying to stay more closed with my front shoulder, because I was way too open with the front shoulder. We were trying to get rid of bending my knee too much, because by the time I released the ball, I was too low, so I couldn’t repeat my mechanics because of that.” In Jimenez’s mind, the personal instruction paid off. “Having three pitching coaches is even better [than two],” he said.

Jimenez, whose fastballs are several miles per hour slower than they were in his youth, hasn’t recaptured some of his former speed, like he did during his 2013 renaissance. According to PITCHf/x data, Jimenez’s revamped mechanics haven’t made his release points more consistent, either: They varied as much from pitch to pitch in the first half of this season as they did in 2014. And compared to his 2010 prime, Jimenez still often looks like he’s literally on tilt, leaning way over when he releases the ball and finishing with an off-center stride.

However, Jimenez’s command has improved relative to his first year with the Orioles. Data captured by COMMANDf/x — which measures the distance between the catcher’s glove at the moment the pitch is released and the pitch’s eventual location — and provided by Sportvision and MLB Advanced Media show that Jimenez missed his targets by about half an inch less, on average, during the first half of this season than he did in 2014.

Sample CMD X STDDEV X CMD Z STDDEV Z CMD Magnitude STDDEV Magnitude
2014 7.26 5.56 10.33 8.14 13.83 8.09
2015, 1st Half 7.12 5.37 9.76 7.73 13.30 7.60

On the pitch-selection side, he’s used his sinker more often, like he did during his heyday, and thrown it lower in the zone, which has boosted his ground ball rate to heights it hadn’t seen since 2010.

ubaldo-pitch-type-chart

And while he’s relied less on the four-seamer, he’s also elevated it more often, which may have helped hike his opponents’ whiff/swing rate against the pitch from a below-average 15.5 percent last year to an above-average 25.0 percent in 2015. Extra swings outside of the strike zone have helped Jimenez reduce his walk rate from 13.9 percent of plate appearances to 7.5 percent, the largest decrease among all pitchers who’ve thrown at least 100 innings in both 2014 and 2015.

ubaldo-pitch-type-chart-2

Even after his ERA-killing interlude, Jimenez leads the Orioles’ staff in WAR, which says as much about Baltimore as it does about him. Last year, Orioles starters’ ERAs beat their pedestrian FIPs by 0.56 runs, more than any other staff except Cincinnati’s. In 2015, their FIPs are even higher, and they’ve outperformed them by only 0.12 runs, perhaps in part because Baltimore’s defense has declined. This year’s Orioles starters have a smaller safety net, and it shows.

If the season ended today, the 57-54 Orioles would be the best AL team not to qualify for the postseason. Four-and-a-half games behind the Yankees and three games back of the Blue Jays in the AL East, their one-in-four chance to make the playoffs is closely tied to their odds of winning a wild card. And their odds of winning a wild card — let alone the wild-card game — won’t rise without a more effective rotation. Jimenez, along with the equally flaky (and perpetually reassigned) Kevin Gausman, gives Baltimore its best shot at an ace-caliber outing on any given night. “It doesn’t matter what you do,” Jimenez said, referring to his unorthodox delivery. “What matters is to be consistent with what you have.” As much as anything else, the O’s hopes will hinge on whether they have Good Ubaldo or Bad Ubaldo over the righty’s remaining 10 or so starts.

Filed Under: MLB, Baltimore Orioles, Ubaldo Jimenez, AL East, Pitchers, Pitching, MLB Stats, MLB Free Agents, 2015 MLB Playoffs, MLB Wild-Card, Los Angeles Angels, Cleveland Indians, Colorado Rockies, Kevin Gausman, MLB Stat, MLB Contracts, Baseball, Ben Lindbergh

Ben Lindbergh is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ BenLindbergh