The Indians have undergone a heck of a makeover this winter. Gone are Shin-Soo Choo, Jack Hannahan, Esmil Rogers, Casey Kotchman, Roberto Hernandez, Rafael Perez, Tony Sipp, Jason Donald, and (at least for now) Grady Sizemore and Travis Hafner; in their stead are Mark Reynolds, Drew Stubbs, Trevor Bauer, Mike Aviles, Bryan Shaw, Matt Albers, and (hopefully) Nick Swisher—not to mention Terry Francona. Just about every facet of the roster has been significantly revamped for 2013.
The one thing that hasn’t changed much is the rotation. Other than losing Hernandez (who might not have won a spot anyway) and adding Bauer (who is likely to start the season in Triple-A), the Tribe’s starting pitching situation for 2013 looks exactly the same as it was projected to be at the end of the 2012 season. Justin Masterson, Zach McAllister, Ubaldo Jimenez, and Carlos Carrasco are all but guaranteed rotation spots, leaving some combination of Bauer, Corey Kluber, Jeanmar Gomez, David Huff, and maybe Paolo Espino to duke it out for the fifth starter’s job in Spring Training—regardless of who wins spot No. 5, it’s safe to say that most Tribe fans take it for granted the first four spots are locked up.
But status quos are meant to be challenged. And though people I respect have called me crazy for suggesting this in the past, I think the Indians should at least give serious consideration to the idea of moving Ubaldo Jimenez to the bullpen.
Let’s get this out of the way first: I’m not saying this just because Jimenez has struggled as a starter. Yes, it’s easier to throw one inning every three games than six or seven every five games, and every time a starting pitcher (especially a young one) struggles there are rumblings about how he might be better off in the bullpen—many Cleveland fans have called for Justin Masterson to be moved back to the bullpen for this reason. That’s not what this is. It’s not that I think Ubaldo can’t cut it as a starter, it’s that I think making him a reliever could fix him.
Every Indians fan knows about Jimenez’ struggles—last year he went 9-17 with a 5.40 ERA and far too few strikeouts for someone who gave up nearly 100 walks—but to my knowledge there isn’t a real consensus about what the problem is. One thing’s for sure, though: the drop in velocity he’s suffered isn’t doing him any favors. Both BIS and PITCHf/x have Jimenez’ average fastball velocity dropping by more than 3 mph from 2010 to 2012, with corresponding (though less dramatic) dips in velocity for his secondary pitchers too. While difficult for any pitcher, such declines are especially tough for a starter whose bread and butter was simply overpowering opposing hitters.
At the risk of grossly oversimplifying one of the most dramatic pitching collapses of the last few years, the story of Ubaldo’s decline is like the children’s book If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. If you lose velocity on your fastball, batters will have an easier time hitting it. If batters are hitting your fastball, you’ll have to rely more on your secondary pitches. If your fastball isn’t as lively as it once was, your secondary pitches will be easier to hit too. If all your pitches suddenly become less effective, you’ll have to completely change your approach and pitch defensively rather than just going after opposing hitters. And when a pitcher who had never been known for his command starts trying to throw like a finesse guy, he goes from “effectively wild” to just plain wild.
How does a pitcher get his velocity back? If I had a medical answer to that, I’d be the wealthiest trainer in all of sports. Short of that, there’s only one solution I know of: moving to the bullpen.
There are several reasons why it’s easier to be a reliever than a starter, but the most fundamental is that relief pitchers throw fewer pitches. Beyond the fact that he’ll get pulled before he gets tired and he (usually) won’t face the same batter twice, that means a bullpen guy can let loose with his best stuff for an inning and then hit the showers. He doesn’t have to pace himself or mix his pitches up to stop batters from getting to familiar with him—two years ago, Matt Thornton basically threw nothing but fastballs and posted a 2.67 ERA.
Generally, pitchers are able to throw 1 or 2 mph faster out of the bullpen than out of the rotation. If Jimenez were to regain just 1 mph on his fastball velocity he’d be back where he was in 2011. Ubaldo circa 2011 was a far cry from his Cy Young-caliber 2010 form, but the DIPS stats still pegged his true-talent ERA as somewhere in the mid-3.00′s. He wouldn’t be late-innings material, but combining that level of performance with a starter’s durability would definitely make him an attractive option for middle relief.
Moving Jimenez to the bullpen would open up a hole in the rotation, but it wouldn’t be unfillable. Forgetting about possible free agent and trade acquisitions, pencil Trevor Bauer in to make the team out of Spring Training and the rotation would be just as settled as it was before the Choo trade. Or, if Bauer really isn’t ready, give a rotation spot to Huff or Gomez for a month or two while Bauer seasons—before you wince, would one of them really be that much worse than Jimenez?
We don’t know what kind of success Francona and his staff will have with Jimenez—it’s reasonable to assume that the Ubaldo question played a role in the hiring of new pitching coach Mickey Callaway—and if the Indians didn’t think he could be fixed they probably wouldn’t have picked up his option for 2013. But if seeing drastic improvement out of Jimenez a starter isn’t a reasonable expectation, moving him to the bullpen might not be such a crazy idea after all.