Ubaldo Jimenez is not having a particularly good season. His ERA is a high 6.59 and he has just a 2-6 record. In May, his ERA was 8.28 and had just one start when he allowed fewer than 5 runs. As a result, people are asking what to do with Ubaldo Jimenez and whether the Orioles should just get rid of him, send him to the bullpen or see if he’s willing to accept a minor-league assignment. All of this begs the question if the Orioles wouldn’t have been better off signing a different pitcher in free agency that signed a similar contract. Has Jimenez been a disappointment?
Using the MLBTRs transaction tracker, I found all starting pitchers that signed deals between 3 and 5 years and received between $10 and $15 million per year from 2011 to the present. There were thirteen starting pitchers that met this requirement including Ubaldo. When I looked at their numbers, I found something interesting.
With a 4.74 ERA, Ubaldo has one of the worst ERAs in the sample, ranking 10th out of 13. But he’s also averaging roughly 1.54 fWAR per year, which puts him 6th out of 13. Depending on how one measures performance, one could argue that he’s been better than one should have expected. Indeed, it shockingly wouldn’t be absurd to call him a good signing.
For example, Ubaldo’s performance may leave much to be desired, but he hasn’t been chronically injured like Brandon McCarthy and Jorge de la Rosa. Those pitchers averaged less than 80 innings per year and it’s hard to be successful when you can’t pitch. Other starters like Edwin Jackson and Scott Feldman were converted from starters to relievers while Ricky Nolasco hasn’t performed well since 2013. Nolasco’s injury in 2015 hasn’t helped his cause either.
The pitchers with the most similar performance to Jimenez have been Kyle Lohse and Matt Garza. Garza has a slightly better ERA than Jimenez over the length of the sample, but the difference between 4.74 and 4.59 isn’t particularly meaningful. In addition, Jimenez has thrown nearly 50 more innings and has been worth .3 more wins. It’s reasonable to say that these two pitchers have had similar performance over their contracts.
Kyle Lohse provided two solid years of service for the Brewers before crashing and burning in year three. Lohse had a superior ERA than Jimenez over the course of their contracts so far, but Jimenez is on pace to provide more value than Jimenez. Given their contracts, Lohse almost definitely outperformed Jimenez, but the difference may be less than one might think.
J.A Happ, Francisco Liriano, Mark Buehrle, Ian Kennedy and Ervin Santana have been clearly better than Jimenez over their most recent contracts. Ervin Santana has unquestionably performed better than Jimenez. He has a much lower ERA and is on pace to have a considerably higher WAR. On the other hand, he tested positive for PEDs in 2015. If Santana can maintain his performance without testing positive for PEDs, then he’ll likely be much better than Jimenez.
Happ and Kennedy have both started their contracts with strong years. But each of them has only completed the first two months of their contracts. It’ll be hard to judge whether they’re worth their contracts until 2018.
Francisco Liriano and Mark Buehrle are the best pitchers in this group and the teams that signed them clearly picked well or got lucky. So far, both pitchers have stayed healthy, been extremely effective and certainly strengthened their teams’ rotations. It is unlikely that Jimenez will perform as well as either of these pitchers, but their performances’ were highly optimal and rare. Most free agent starting pitchers that signed a similar contract weren’t as good as these two pitchers. It isn’t reasonable to expect Jimenez to perform that well, even if it was a reasonable hope.
It is true that Jimenez has had a tough May. To a large extent, this is because batters had extremely good luck putting hard pitches into play. In April, batters had a 19.4% foul rate and a 15.2% in play rate. In May, batters had a 12.9% foul rate and a 22.25% in play rate. Batters do well when they put pitches into play. Likewise, batters had a 10.9% miss rate, 9.4% foul rate and 18.8% in play rate against soft pitches. This means that they put nearly 50% of the soft pitches they swung at into play. Obviously, pitchers can’t be successful if that happens. But on the other hand, it certainly didn’t help that batters had a .432 BABIP in May against his soft pitches and a .357 BABIP against his hard pitches. That’s probably bad luck and it’s unlikely that batters will continue to put the same proportion of swung-at pitches into play. If so, he isn’t as bad as his May performance suggests, and bad pitchers have bad months. I wouldn’t give up on him quite yet.
If the Orioles had better options, then perhaps it would be a different story. But the Orioles have minimal pitching talent in Norfolk. In the majors, the Orioles’ have little quality starting pitching aside from Gausman and Tillman. It’s possible that Gallardo might bounce back or that Wilson and Wright will be effective. But it’s not particularly likely. And the trade market for starting pitching doesn’t look good this year.
The bottom line is that $12 million a year doesn’t buy quality in the free agent market. On average, it pays for a below average, but capable pitcher. The Orioles have received exactly what they paid for. Of course, this also illustrates the necessity of developing quality starting pitching and being able to find acceptable starting pitching via waivers and in the cheap free agent market.