25 September 2015

Ubaldo Jimenez Keeps Stealing Strikes

In Tuesday's game against the Nationals, Ubaldo Jimenez looked to garner his 100th career win (I know, I know). When the night concluded, he had six innings, one run, and that elusive W to his name. To an extent, Jimenez struggled with control in the outing, issuing five free passes to Washington hitters. Despite that — and despite a second half in which he's walked one out of every ten men to come to the plate — he's improved significantly from last year in this regard, lowering his walk rate from 13.9% to 8.7%.

How has Jimenez arrived here? To cherry-pick a few representative examples from the aforementioned game, he's done this...

...and this...

...and this:

(Props to Nate Delong for the GIFs.)

According to Brooks, all three of those fell outside the strike zone — and yet, all went for called strikes. This continues a trend that has assisted Jimenez all season: He's received far more strikes than his peripherals would suggest.

For 2015 as a whole, 62.1% of Jimenez's pitches (excluding intentional balls) have gone for strikes; 45.9% of his pitches have landed in the PITCHf/x-defined strike zone; and 26.9% of his pitches outside the strike zone have induced a swing. Do some basic arithmetic with the latter two numbers, however, and you discover a 60.5% expected strike rate — 1.6 percentage points lower than his actual mark. That difference ranks tenth among AL pitchers with 100 or more innings:

Rank Name O-Swing% Zone% xStr% Str% Diff
1 Dallas Keuchel 32.8% 40.0% 59.7% 63.4% 3.7%
2 John Danks 30.1% 47.1% 63.0% 65.7% 2.7%
3 Wade Miley 30.3% 40.9% 58.8% 61.4% 2.6%
4 Jose Quintana 30.4% 46.0% 62.4% 64.9% 2.5%
5 J.A. Happ 26.7% 45.8% 60.3% 62.5% 2.2%
6 Chris Sale 35.4% 47.6% 66.1% 68.2% 2.1%
7 Tommy Milone 31.6% 42.8% 60.9% 62.9% 2.0%
8 C.J. Wilson 26.0% 44.7% 59.1% 61.0% 1.9%
9 CC Sabathia 32.4% 45.6% 63.2% 65.0% 1.8%
10 Ubaldo Jimenez 26.9% 45.9% 60.5% 62.1% 1.6%

It's also important to note that Jimenez has never excelled here. In fact, he used to underperform significantly:

This meshes with the view most fans (myself included) hold of Jimenez: He's a wild pitcher, and as such he won't receive many borderline calls — because he most often won't hit the borders. Indeed, in terms of Edge%, he hasn't improved at all from his horrid 2014 season, maintaining a 16.4% figure by that metric. Somehow, though, he's pulled this off.

Certainly, Jimenez owes much of this success to Caleb Joseph, for catching 131.1 of Jimenez's 171.0 innings in 2015. Although he hasn't sustained his incredible framing numbers from last season, Joseph has still saved about seven runs with his receiving ability — one of the better marks in the majors. But Joseph has served as the primary catcher for Wei-Yin Chen, who has posted a lower-than-predicted strike rate (68.2% xStr%, 67.9% Str%). Some of this goes beyond the catcher.

Baseball Savant gives some clues about where Jimenez has picked up those extra strikes. This plot shows his called strikes on pitches outside the strike zone, for his career (from 2008 onward):

This plot shows the same, but for 2015 alone:

And finally, this GIF helps to illuminate the change:

Umpires have seemingly always given Jimenez calls on the outer edges. Recently, though, they've started to do so for lower pitches as well. (The pitch to Werth above perhaps epitomizes this better than anything else this season.) These pitches at the knees have played the largest role in Jimenez's elevated strike total.

This explanation jives with what we already know about Jimenez. As Matt has noted previously, Jimenez has thrown more sinkers this season; most of those have, predictably, gone to the bottom of the zone. Overall, Jimenez has thrown lower than ever before:

Historically — as well as for 2015 — hitters haven't offered at Jimenez's pitches down in the zone. Targeting this area more heavily, he's thus seen more called strikes there, both legitimate and illegitimate. Essentially, Jimenez has thrown a bunch of crap (low pitches) at the wall (batters), and some of it has stuck (strikes outside the zone).

Jimenez is no Greg Maddux. His ability to capture strikes on the plate's outer regions most likely stems from poor umpiring; moreover, baseball as a whole has seen more low strikes this year than ever before, meaning Jimenez doesn't stand out incredibly. Nevertheless, he has undeniably progressed in 2015, partially on the back of these swiped calls. If he can continue to maintain his new delivery — and if Caleb Joseph sticks around — he'll probably keep up the thievery.

All data as of Thursday, September 23rd.

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