Saturday, May 7, 2011

Jimenez still in search of the strike zone

By Bill

I wrote this for the SweetSpot blog on today, but due to an unlikely combination of unfortunate circumstances, it's not going to be able to be run over there. I'd hate to miss a chance to get Rockies fans mad at me again, though, so I'm running it here.

Entering May 6 of 2010, Rockies ace Ubaldo Jimenez had made six starts and won each of them, posting an 0.87 ERA in just over 41 innings while striking out 44 against 16 walks and permitting no home runs. Entering the same date in 2011, Jimenez had made just four starts and won none of them, posting a 7.20 ERA in 20 innings with 20 strikeouts, 11 walks and three homers surrendered, and making a trip to the disabled list in April with a thumb injury.

As Steve Berthiaume noted on Friday morning, Jimenez’s fastball, entering yesterday, was registering an average of more than three miles per hour slower than it did in 2010. So his performance on Friday night against the Giants – just the second start of the season that he’s made on regular four days’ rest – was worth watching closely.

And there was good news. Jimenez permitted just two hits (a double and a triple) and one run in six innings, striking out seven. According to the PitchFX data available on Brooks Baseball, his four-seam fastball came in at an average of 94.6 miles an hour, which, while still shy of his 2010 average of over 96 MPH, was a significant improvement. His slider and split-finger, at times, looked unhittable. He appeared (to me, and to the Giants’ television crew) to settle down quite a bit after a rocky first inning during which his control and mechanics seemed very out of sorts, and followed that up with two very strong innings.

But there was bad news, too. Jimenez threw 118 pitches in his six innings, only 66 of them (58.5%) for strikes, and walked a whopping five batters, which contributed to his failure to exceed six innings for the fifth time in five tries this season. Those pitches that could sometimes be unhittable also sometimes looked completely uncontrolled, as though he had no idea where they were going when he left his hand and the unhittable ones were just happy accidents. After throwing 28 pitches (one more than half of which were strikes) in the first, Jimenez did indeed improve, at least a little; he was still often wild and inefficient, though, throwing 26 pitches (15 for strikes) in the fourth inning and getting only 10 of his 18 pitches across for strikes in the sixth.

It’s tempting to treat this game as a statement, as many did with Francisco Liriano’s six-walk no-hitter a few days ago, that Jimenez is over his troubles and ready to dominate again. But while there certainly were encouraging signs here, the five walks and high pitch count still have to be a significant concern to Rockies fans. If, as it seems, he’s regaining his velocity (it’s actually been climbing slowly over his last few starts, suggesting that the dip was caused mostly by the earlier finger injury), that will clearly be an improvement, but he was getting plenty of strikeouts even with his reduced velocity. The real problem was his huge increase in walk rate, from 3.74 walks per nine innings in 2010 to 5.5 so far in 2011. And that’s one area in which he actually fared a little worse last night, not better.

Regardless of how hard he’s throwing, Jimenez (just like anyone this side of Nolan Ryan, Bob Feller and J.R. Richard) will need to be able to get the ball over the plate in order to dependably be nearly as effective as he appeared last night, and to pitch into the seventh or eighth innings of his starts. Even (or maybe especially) after tonight’s otherwise encouraging performance, that isn’t something he’s shown he’s able to do yet. Luckily for Rockies fans, with stellar starts to the season by Jason Hammel, Jhoulys Chacin and Jorge de la Rosa, plus a very good bullpen, the team really hasn’t needed Ubaldo to be Ubaldo just yet. Ultimately, though, if Ubaldo can return to something like his 2010 form, that could take the team from strong contender to runaway division winner. You’ll just want to be keeping an eye on his control (or lack thereof).  

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