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Did The Tribe Win Last Night? | April 17, 2014

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Jimenez’s Rotation Spot is a Guarantee and Nothing Else However

During Spring Training the DTTWLN staff will profile and examine the coaches and players that make up and are vying to be part of the 2013 Cleveland Indians—A Team With A New Direction. Today, we examine one of the players on the 40-man roster that is in need of a major bounce back season from 2012.

By Steve Eby

In baseball, trades often can’t be fairly evaluated until long after the fact.  It’s not really fair to judge these things if you can’t see the forest for the trees.  Sometimes trades end up being so one-sided that it is comical (i.e. Ed Taubensee for Kenny Lofton) and sometimes trades work out tremendously for both sides (i.e. Trevor Hoffman for Gary Sheffield).

And then sometimes there are trades that are terrible for both teams.

When the trading deadline was upon the Indians in 2011, they sent Joseph Gardner, Matt McBride and their top two pitching prospects Alex White and Drew Pomeranz to Colorado for former All-Star starter Ubaldo Jimenez.  The trade has been a disaster for both franchises from the very start.

For the Rockies, Gardner has yet to make his MLB debut and was stuck at Double-A for the second straight season as he bounced back and forth from starting pitcher to the bullpen.  McBride finally made it to the big leagues last season at the age of 27 and struggled through 78 at bats, by hitting only .205, while drawing only one walk with 17 strikeouts.  Meanwhile, White and Pomeranz have struggled mightily as well.

The two prized youngster’s combined totals over the past year and a half with Colorado are an 8-23 record with a 5.70 ERA.  It got so bad for White, that the Rockies traded him along with another minor leaguer to Houston this past December for relief pitcher Wilton Lopez.  Neither young pitcher has lived up to their expectations and only so much that can be blamed on Coors Field’s thin air.  But as far as failing to meet expectations goes, no player has fallen as flat on his face as Jimenez has.

What the Indians thought that they were getting when they made the blockbuster deal was a legitimate ace that would anchor their starting staff for the next two and a half years.  They figured that they were getting a pitcher whose fastball would regularly be clocked in the upper 90’s and one that was a potential no-hitter every time that he toed the rubber.  He would instantly become a Cy Young contender, the best pitcher on the team and would challenge Detroit’s Justin Verlander for the best arm in the division.

That’s what they thought they were getting…and absolutely none of that is what the Indians have received in Jimenez.

Since coming over to Cleveland, Jimenez has become a shell of the pitcher that he was during his amazing 2010 season.  In 2010, Jimenez started the All-Star Game for the National League, had a 19-8 record, a 2.88 ERA and 214 strikeouts in 221.2 innings.  He finished third in the Cy Young Award voting and was without question a legitimate ace and one of the best young players in the game.

In 2012, Jimenez led the American League in losses (17) and wild pitches (16) with a 5.40 ERA and struck out only 143 batters compared to 95 walks in 176.2 innings pitched.  He was an enigma every time he went to the mound as his fans, his teammates, his opposition and even he had no clue what to expect from him.

So what happened?

“The last two years have been really difficult for me,” Jimenez said on Sports Time Ohio’s Spring Training Daily.  “The one thing I can do is to just keep working every day.”

It’s not easy to pinpoint what went wrong with in 2012 with Jimenez.  His fastball was consistently clocked in the low 90’s and his slider dipped into the low 80’s.  According to FanGraphs.com, in 2010 Jimenez clocked an average of 96.1 MPH on his fastball and 86.6 on his slider.  In 2012, Jimenez slid down to 92.1 and 81.9.  Not only did he decline on the radar gun, he also failed the eye test as well.

Jimenez’s mechanics have become a big talking point and are quite possibly the main reasons for his sharp decline.  In 2012, Jimenez’s hands separated from his mitt very early, which forced his arms to get too high and become inconsistent in his release.  He had a tendency to collapse his back leg and bounce up, changing his plane of vision and wasting precious energy in the process.  His stride toward the plate was too short, causing a drop in velocity.  Finally, Jimenez’s front shoulder would fly open, again creating inconsistencies and forcing him to become wild.  In a nutshell—Jimenez’s mechanics were a complete mess.

“I have to work on my mechanics,” Jimenez said.  “It’s all about my front shoulder.  It’s all about using that front arm to be able to produce some power.  I think it’s all about mechanics.”

Manager Terry Francona and Pitching Coach Mickey Callaway have been on “Project: Fix Ubaldo,” since being hired.  During the offseason, Jimenez was paid a visit by both of his new coaches.

“The first thing Mickey did was to fly to the Dominican Republic as Ubaldo was just starting his throwing program,” Francona said at TribeFest.  “We’re trying to wipe the slate clean and get him with a good base.  When he started throwing his bullpens Mickey and I went back just for a little bit of positive reinforcement.”

“I’ve been watching tons of video on him,” Callaway said in a November 15 interview on All Bets Are Off.  “I’m just trying to get prepared for the season.”

“Everybody who has seen Ubaldo pitch knows he’s never going to be in the manual for the perfect delivery.  But he had gotten so many little, extra moves with his arm that he wasn’t very ‘clean’.  Mickey tried to just clean it up and simplify it a little bit to get him back to where he was (with Colorado),” Francona said.

“I think he still has great stuff and the ability to be a very effective Major League starting pitcher,” General Manager Chris Antonetti said in a Jordan Bastian article. “But as we’ve talked about, the thing that’s the key for him is consistency.  It starts with his ability to execute his delivery consistently.”

Of all of the mechanical issues that 2012 Ubaldo had, the biggest problem may have been in his head.  Perhaps Jimenez could learn a thing or two from fictional catcher Crash Davis when he said, “Don’t think. It can only hurt the ball club.”

Pitchers that think too much often get caught up and sometimes obsessed with mechanics and it is a very strong possibility that Jimenez just overthought everything.  When a pitcher is mentally enamored with arm slots, stride lengths and hands separations, they often tend to put more important things on the back burner, like throwing their best, quality pitches.  In clutch, big-pitch situations, Jimenez often turned to his off-speed or breaking pitches rather than his fastball.  It very well may be that he lost confidence in the pitch because of the loss of velocity, but the dropping MPH are quite possibly due to overthinking as well.  Odds are that Jimenez wasn’t worried about his front shoulder when he was firing in 97 MPH heaters.

Another theory of what turned the 2010 version of Jimenez into the 2012 plight is that he was hampered by injuries.  After his below-average-but-not-quite-as-terrible 2011 season, Jimenez admitted last spring training that he was hurt.  He suffered through the 2011 season battling a groin injury and a hip flexor which threw off his mechanics.  For the 2012 season, Jimenez insisted that he was perfectly fine.

“It doesn’t matter how you feel,” Jimenez said. “You have to go out there every five days.”

“He goes out there and competes every time and that’s what you are looking for,” Callaway said.  “Good or bad he’s out there competing. He’s got great makeup and we’re going to build on that.”

The Indians are banking on Jimenez to bounce back from his horrific season and to become more like the 2010 version than his evil counterpart.  Anyone who knows about the Indians knows that they will be as successful as their starting pitching performs and no pitchers are more important to the team’s success than Jimenez and his teammate Justin Masterson.  Like Jimenez, Masterson also had a down season in 2012, leaving far more questions than answers heading into the 2013 season.

Regardless of public opinion, not all hope is lost for Jimenez, however.  Remember it or not, there was a point in 2012 where Jimenez’s season was extremely effective.  In fact, he was nearly as effective as 2010 for this stretch.

For seven starts from June 5 to July 7, Jimenez pitched like his old self.  He averaged 6.2 innings per start, had a 2.93 ERA, a .669 OPS against and averaged six strikeouts per nine innings compared to 3.1 walks.  If the 2013 version can come close to these numbers, the Tribe will be just fine.

“He still has very good stuff,” Callaway said.  “He still has the ability to throw the ball in the mid-to-low 90s.  He has a good curveball.”

What the problem is, however, is that for as good as those starts were, the rest were far, far uglier.

In the rest of 2012 Jimenez’s games, he averaged just over five innings per start, had a 6.27 ERA, a .870 OPS against and walked 5.4 batters per nine.  These are the starts that made Jimenez’s ugly numbers what they were.

Nevertheless, Jimenez will be in the 2013 rotation and he will take his unorthodox and perhaps broken mechanics out there every five games.  Fans need to understand that Jimenez is wild.  He is going to walk a lot of people.  There is no stopping this.  Even when Jimenez was at his best, he was still a wild pitcher.

In 2010, Jimenez walked 92 batters and led the National League with 16 wild pitches.  When Jimenez threw a no-hitter against the Atlanta Braves on April 17, he walked six batters and threw 128 pitches.  He is wild, unorthodox and thinks too much—yet, he is the key to the Indians season.

Jimenez needs to be successful if the Indians hope to have any chance of competing.  He doesn’t need to be as electrifying as 2010, just a descent starting pitcher.  It will probably never get to the point where Jimenez will be a possible no-hitter every time he takes the mound and there may never again be a guarantee about what he will give the team on any given night.  The most important thing for the Indians is that the 2012 version of Jimenez had better not ever show his face in Cleveland again.

Photo: Chuck Crow/The Plain Dealer