Orbiting Cleveland: Jimenez’s resurgence continues

Ubaldo Jimenez was brought to Cleveland for nights like tonight.

That’s at least what Cleveland Indians General Manager Chris Antonetti would have said nearly two years ago.

The Indians open a three-game series tonight against the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park. There may be no such thing as a must-win series in June, but this one has to come pretty close.

With their record at 30-29, the Indians trail the Tigers (32-26) by 2 1/2 games in the American League Central. The record may not be entirely indicative of just how bad things have gone for the Indians in the past two weeks though as the team has gone just 4-12 in its last 16 games.

On July 31, 2011, Antonetti made the decision to trade top-pitching prospects Drew Pomeranz and Alex White as well as Joe Gardner and Matt McBride to the Colorado Rockies for Ubaldo Jimenez. At the time, Antonetti believed he was receiving an ace — a stopper, someone who could go out each fifth day and put an end to any losing streak.

We all know that that unfortunately has not been the case so far with Jimenez.

Prior to this year, the right-hander had back-to-back poor campaigns for the Indians as he finished 4-4 with a 5.10 ERA in 11 starts in 2011 before hitting rock bottom in 2012 when he went 9-17 and posted a 5.40 ERA in 31 starts.

Yet, with every start of the 2013 season, it suddenly seems as if those 2011 and 2012 seasons are fading into a distant memory. Plain and simple, Jimenez has been good, sometimes great, this season.

He currently is 4-3 with a 4.83 ERA in 11 starts and 59 2/3 innings. No, he’s still not the ace that Antonetti thought he acquired back in 2011, but he’s certainly a much more effective starter than anyone probably thought he could be this year.

Also, while Jimenez may not be an actual ace, it is possible for him at times to pitch like one, and there are signs that he could be moving toward that level. For evidence, look no further than last Saturday’s start against the Tampa Bay Rays.

Without question, the start was the best of Jimenez’s now two-year tenure with the Tribe.

Jimenez dominated the Tampa Bay lineup as he allowed just four hits across eight shutout innings while throwing 109 pitches. Jimenez also threw an astonishing 72 (66 percent) of those pitches for strikes, and he struck out seven batters.

That recent start was the latest glimpse at the kind of potential Jimenez still has even with his fastball velocity down to an average of 92.1 miles per hour, which is almost four miles below the 95.8 that Jimenez averaged in 2010 when he nearly won the Cy Young Award as a member of the Colorado Rockies. However, the dip in velocity has not affected Jimenez’s effectiveness at all this season as he’s allowed two or more earned runs in seven starts, four runs in one start and then there were three starts where it got away from him (seven or six earned runs).

As those three starts indicate, when Jimenez has been bad this year, he’s been bad. The beauty of it though is that Jimenez has been good much more than he’s been bad.

Fresh off his stellar performance against the Rays, Jimenez will face off against the Tigers’ Justin Verlander tonight, who we all know is essentially the best living pitcher on the planet.

Verlander’s numbers have been down a bit this year (7-4, 3.70 ERA), but there’s no denying that Verlander can go out, dominate and even throw a no-hitter on any given night.

Knowing that, if there is a time for Jimenez to have another ace-like performance, it’s now. Again, the mere concept of a must-win series in baseball is quite clichéd, especially in June, but the magnitude of this series cannot be denied. The Tribe has been lifeless for the past two weeks, and someone needs to provide a spark. Jimenez will get the chance to be that someone come tonight.

While this coming series against Detroit is of utmost importance, in the big scheme of things, it’s more important that Jimenez continues to round the corner and prove to be an effective Major League starter. He’s on his way, but 11 starts are still just 11 starts. Things have looked good so far, but there’s still plenty of time for the wheels to fall off —or for acceleration.

Back on April 5, in this very column, I made the prediction that Jimenez was bound for a positive 2013 campaign following his first start of the year. Jimenez was coming off a solid outing where he allowed one run in six innings in a 3-2 win against the Toronto Blue Jays.

Jimenez then regressed in his proceeding two starts, and my faith was all but broken. Since then though, it does appear as if he has made legitimate positive strides, and my faith has now been restored.

The stories (or supposed myths at the time) of an improved Jimenez first started making the rounds this past offseason after there were reports that new Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway had gone to work with Jimenez at his Dominican home on multiple occasions. There were reports that the two were developing a solid rapport, but fans remained skeptical.

Stories of a possible Jimenez resurgence increased after the right-hander went out in Spring Training and pitched well while also showing much improved command (7 BB: 22 K).

Now, those stories seem to have become a reality as Jimenez has become arguably the most pleasant surprise on this year’s Indians team.

On the surface, it does not seem as if much has changed about Jimenez, except for one thing — his coach.

Last season, it always appeared as if former pitching coach Scott Radinsky was constantly working with Jimenez on his delivery in an effort to iron out kinks and flaws. There’s no evidence as to whether Jimenez resented the changes, but his performance certainly seemed to suggest that.

Callaway, on the other hand, seems to have taken a different approach. Rather than break everything down, Callaway’s point has been that Jimenez needs to quicken his delivery. So far, the results seem to suggest that Jimenez has been receptive to the new approach as he’s currently having the most success he’s ever enjoyed with the Indians.

Of course, there’s still the question as to whether or not it will last. Yes, we do need Jimenez to pitch like an ace tonight, but it would be better if he could pitch like an ace every night.

The key with Jimenez is to remember that even with his velocity down, he has the potential to be an ace simply because he throws so many plus-offerings. For evidence, consider the fact that Jimenez is throwing his fastball just 54 percent of the time, which is a career low. In comparison, Jimenez is throwing his slider 19.2 percent of the time, which is a career high.

The results have been impressive though as Jimenez is striking out 9.1 batters per nine innings, which also happens to be a career high. In fact, Jimenez has never been the greatest of strikeout pitchers, but just look at how his numbers have risen this year from previous years after he’s decided to lean off the fastball.

The strikeout rate is not the only statistic that has seen a steady climb for Jimenez this season though. If a pitcher is unable to get the opposing batter to swing and miss, the next best thing is a groundout, and Jimenez has been generating plenty of those as well.

His ground ball percentage of 48.4 percent is the highest mark that he’s posted since 2010, which was the last season that he was really an elite pitcher.

Jimenez also has made strides in the area of fly ball percentage. While his eight home runs allowed this season is still a bit too high, Jimenez’s fly ball percentage of 33.8 percent is still a marked improvement from the 38.2 that he posted last season.

It would be nice to see that fly ball percentage decrease even a bit more, but as you can tell, it’s still below the fly ball percentage that Jimenez posted in 2010 when he was one of the best pitchers in the game.

Unfortunately a sample size of 11 starts is too early to declare that Jimenez is indeed fixed. However, the positive strides cannot be denied as the strikeouts are up, the walks are down and the results have been encouraging.

The numbers suggest that Jimenez still has all the stuff to be an effective Major League starter and even possibly an ace. The key with Jimenez has been body language and confidence, but it seems as if he’s even making progress in that department.

Go back and watch his performance on Saturday, especially when Jimenez comes off the field after throwing eight scoreless innings. A huge grin was on Jimenez’s face that went from ear to ear.

Ask yourself this. When was the last time you saw Jimenez smile like that? Ever?

It’s clear that Jimenez is starting to regain the confidence or swagger that he used to proudly display in Colorado. Who knows what could happen if the right-hander continues to gain confidence.

Speaking of confidence boosters…

One has to imagine that a pitcher would be feeling pretty confident if he’s able to go out and outpitch a former Cy Young Award winner in a battle of first and second place teams.

Maybe that idea of a must-win game in June is not so clichéd after all…


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