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2013 Indians Player Preview: Ubaldo Jimenez

As we count down the days until the start of the season, we’re profiling every player who will be on the Opening Day roster and how he could impact the team. Today, we continue making our way through the rotation with the Indians’ 2013 No. 2 starter: Ubaldo Jimenez.

Background: The Colorado Rockies signed Jimenez as an amateur free agent out of the Dominican Republic in 2001, when he was just 17. He landed on Baseball America‘s Top 100 Prospects list in both 2005 and 2007. He experienced his first full MLB season in 2008 and was a Cy Young contender in 2010, when he went 19-8 with a 2.88 ERA. The Indians traded Drew PomeranzAlex White, Joe Gardner, and Matt McBride for Jimenez in July 2011; for better or worse, he has been in Cleveland’s rotation ever since.

Last year: After a rough start to his Indians career in 2011, Jimenez’ struggles were only compounded in 2012. Ubaldo lost an MLB-high 17 games to go along with a 5.40 ERA (72 ERA+); the DIPS stats put him slightly better (between 4.85 and 5.06), but even there he fared quite poorly. As his fastball velocity continued its steady decline (he averaged 92.5 mph in 2012, down from 95.8 mph just two years earlier) Jimenez set career worsts in strikeout rate (7.3 K/9), walk rate (4.8 BB/9), groundball rate (38%), and even home run rate (1.3 HR/9)—and that’s saying something for a player who once called Coors Field home.

FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus valued Ubaldo’s 2012 performance as marginally better than that of a replacement-level pitcher (0.2 WAR and 0.5 WARP, respectively), while Baseball-Reference pegged him at a full win below replacement.

Key factor: Fastball velocity. Remember the book If You Give a Mouse a Cookie? As I’ve written previously, the format of the classic children’s book actually frames Jimenez’ struggles quite well:

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.

For Ubaldo to reach some semblance of his past success, one of two things has to happen: Either he must regain his lost velocity or he must reinvent himself as a completely different pitcher.

2013 projections: Courtesy of FanGraphs. (*—estimated with the Simple WAR Calculator)

Bill James and Oliver see Jimenez as a legitimate No. 3 (or maybe even No. 2) starter, while Steamer and ZiPS project him as a back-end but still very useful starting pitcher. But the consensus is clear that Ubaldo is in for some dramatic improvements.

Best-case scenario: Thanks to some assistance from hand-picked pitching coach Mickey Callaway, Jimenez’s fastball regains some new life—and the dominoes fall from there. The strikeouts return, batters can’t hit him as hard, and perhaps most importantly he gets his confidence back. A return to 2010 form is almost certainly out of the question, but looking like he did in 2009 (15-12, 3.47 ERA) isn’t out of the realm of possibility.

Worst-case scenario: The good news is that Jimenez really can’t get much worse than he was last year; the bad news is that he might not get better. There is a very real chance that Ubaldo is simply broken beyond repair, and after another couple months of badly diminished stuff and no command he could be either moved to the bullpen or outright released.

What to expect: The basic principle of regression to the mean suggests Jimenez wasn’t really as bad as he looked last year, and that Callaway seems to have some specific ideas of what his pupil should work on is somewhat encouraging. Look for another year of close to 200 innings with an ERA in the high-4.00’s—a serviceable performance for a back-end starter, but a supreme disappointment to a team that was counting on him as their No. 2 man.

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