The Orioles seem intent to head to spring training with six viable starting pitching options. Every O's fan has his or her opinion about which of the six should be traded, demoted (if possible), or relegated to a long relief role. But the highest paid of the six, and the most ridiculed, is Ubaldo Jimenez.
2014 was not a good year, baseball wise, for Jimenez. In 125.1 total innings, he finished with a 4.81 ERA (and a 4.67 FIP and 4.48 xFIP). He was mostly his own worst enemy, as he wasn't unfortunate on balls in play (.289 BABIP vs. career .292) or home runs (10.9% HR/FB vs. career 8.9%, with most of those earlier low home run totals coming several seasons ago).
Batters swung a career low 39.1% of the time against Jimenez, while making contact a career high 82.3% of the time (82.2% in 2012). He wasn't throwing pitches in the strike zone (career low 47.9%), so batters were content to take walks or get in good counts and look for certain pitches to hit. Despite throwing his fewest amount of innings since 2007, he still maintained his average career K/9 of 8.3. But he walked a career high 5.53 per nine innings (he'd never had a BB/9 over 5), which clearly hurt. Among all pitchers who threw at least 120 innings, Jimenez's 5.53 walk rate was the highest in the majors. Justin Masterson (4.83 BB/9) was second. At least Masterson was close to the third name on the list, Brad Peacock (4.78). Jimenez was in his own category of awfulness.
Jimenez's strikeout and walk rate combination in 2014 isn't unique, but it doesn't happen often. Since 1961, only seven other pitchers (14 total times) had seasons in which they threw at least 120 innings and had a K/9 of at least 8.3 and a BB/9 over 5.5. Nolan Ryan accomplished that feat five times. Randy Johnson, Kazuhisa Ishii, and Bobby Witt each did it twice. And Kerry Wood, Ed Correa, and O's legend Daniel Cabrera did it once apiece.
Not only did Jimenez throw the fewest innings, but he arguably pitched the worst of the group (at least according to ERA+). Witt's consecutive seasons of 8+ BB/9 are also quite remarkable. No one else on this list is even above 7. It's also interesting that everyone on this list was 31 or younger at the time. Unsurprisingly, striking out and walking a bunch of opposing batters doesn't seem to be an aging pitcher's game.
Jimenez also below average in the groundball rate category as well. Earlier in his career, Jimenez posted groundball rates in the high 40s and low 50s, but the last three years, he's finished at 38.4%, 43.9%, and 41.3%, respectively. (The major league average groundball rate for starters in 2014 was 44.6%.)
Jimenez, who mostly throws sinkers, sliders, four-seamers, and splitters, is also dealing with declining velocity, a continuing trend for him.
It's not unusual for pitchers' velocity to decline over time -- specifically around age 29 or so. However, Jimenez has been losing velocity since the end of the 2010 season. 2011 was his age 27 season, so he's been dealing with velocity issues a couple years earlier than normal.
For some reason, Jimenez started throwing more sinkers again. After throwing sinkers 31% of the time in 2013, he threw them more than 40% last season. That was the highest percentage for him since 2009. He also threw his lowest percentage of four-seamers (18.5%) since 2009.
The sinker was a real weapon for him from 2007-2009, though the return to the sinker didn't pan out last season. Jimenez kept his two-seamers down in the zone, but the horizontal movement just wasn't there. (The same thing for his four-seamer.)
Jimenez can still be effective, but he will need to cut down on his walks. Besides the difference in strikeouts and walks, he's similar when it comes to fly balls and ground balls to the rest of the O's rotation. Perhaps that's why Jimenez (maybe at the request of O's pitching coaches) threw more sinkers in 2014 -- to try to rekindle some of the groundball inducing stature from his earlier days with the Rockies. It's also not a bad idea considering the team's excellent infield defense.
It's worth noting that Jimenez admitted to working out less last offseason while he was waiting to be signed:
One of the most difficult aspects for Jimenez was the constant fear of getting injured. In order to reduce the risk, he cut down on his workouts. Instead of throwing from a mound like he usually does in the offseason, Jimenez instead threw long toss on flat ground from 90 or 120 feet. He never once took the mound in the offseason.
At the gym, Jimenez would run less miles than he would normally run, and he almost completely stopped lifting weights. He had become paranoid that even the rumor of an injury could knock down his market value even more.It's impossible to know for sure whether less offseason training played a large role in Jimenez's disappointing 2014. But it didn't help. Regardless, he pitched poorly, sprained his ankle somehow while walking in a parking lot, and lost his rotation spot. He was then left off the Orioles' American League Championship Series roster.
This isn't exactly how the Orioles envisioned the Jimenez signing going. And they clearly tried to unload his contract (three years remaining on his four-year, $50 million deal) earlier in the offseason. But if he's healthy and throwing strikes, he can certainly be useful in 2015 and beyond. It's not unreasonable to pay $12-$13 million a season for the services of a good, helpful starting pitcher. Surely, the O's would be just fine if Jimenez returned to that level.