06 June 2016

Is Jimenez A Disappointment?

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.


Roger said...

The market has changed. Free agency seems to be great for the players - not so much for the teams.

Jon Shepherd said...

Same as it ever was.

Matt Perez said...

Twenty years ago, teams had to pay a lot for free agents but there was good talent on the market. Now there simply isn't a lot of talent and teams need to pay a lot for whatever is out there. Incentives are out of whack.

But such is life. That's why you need to develop well.

Jon Shepherd said...

I question whether average pitchers have their salaries elevated. Lots of mediocre pitchers got decent mid level deals a couple decades ago.

Matt Perez said...

All I meant was that there was more talent on the market awhile ago. Not that mediocre pitchers didn't get paid.

Anonymous said...

Given the benefit of hindsight, the Orioles probably should have gone with AAA call-ups instead if you consider the entire sequence of events:

(A) As an Oriole, Jimenez was serviceable for only about half of the 2015 season. If all you're asking for is 4.74 ERA / 1.49 WHIP, you can get similar results at a fraction of the cost.
(B) Because so much money was tied up to Jimenez, the organization could not afford to re-sign Chen after the 2015 season.
(C) Because of (B), Duquette had no choice but to waste a draft pick to sign Gallardo for 2016. But Gallardo was ineffective this year before he landed on the DL.

The net effect is therefore wasting $72 million and a first-round draft pick while creating 3 holes in the starting rotation (A+B+C). In my opinion, Duquette deserves to be fired for this mistake alone.

Matt Perez said...

If you want to be technical about it, DD completely had a choice not to sign Gallardo. If signing Jimenez was a mistake, then so was signing Gallardo. So, (C) is probably wrong.

It's questionable whether the Os would have re-signed Chen regardless. And he hasn't been so effective this year. I'm not convinced this will end up well for the Marlins.

It's hard to get similar results at a fraction of the cost. Replacement level pitchers are likely considerably worse. And it's reasonable to presume that cheaper pitchers would be worse.

In any event, it probably isn't fair to judge DD on Jimenez/Gallardo without discussing Trumbo/Cruz.

Pip said...

Sure it is.
Cruz was a lucky sign, available only because Seattle wouldn't guarantee him time in the field.
No skill involved in that.
Trumbo was a salary dump by the Mariners. The Orioles were one of the very few teams that wanted a no-defense, all-power guy, and the Ms needed a backup catcher. Dan took the many millions risk and it paid off but that certainly isn't "skill"
He even signed Alvarez, who had the same( but worse) profile as Trumbo, because that's Dan's comfort zone; bad defenders who hit for power.
Those wouldn't be good comps anyway because this article is about pitching.
Dan has many flaws but pitching is his worst. He trades away pitching prospects and he trades for/signs mediocre pitchers.
Bud Norris was a happy exception but he was definitely an exception and a lucky one at that.
No, Dan is not a good GM, and his flaws are plentiful and large.

Anonymous said...

Re: Matt Perez
If you want to be technical about it, DD completely had a choice not to sign Gallardo. If signing Jimenez was a mistake, then so was signing Gallardo. So, (C) is probably wrong.

Okay, maybe I should have placed "had no choice" in quotes. My point was simply that Duquette probably felt pressured to make a move due to (A)+(B), but Move (C) actually ended up compounding the mistake. (To me, this is analogous to averaging down in the middle of a stock market crash as the prices fall even further.)

As for the inability to "get similar results at a fraction of the cost": While I agree that you're technically right, I'd argue that the discussion really reduces to a matter of semantics at some point. For example, while you could argue that there's a practical difference between an ERA of ~4.5 and ~5.0, there is probably no meaningful difference once that number increases further to 6, 9, or 12... because you're looking at an almost-guaranteed loss by then.

(Obviously, I'm making up the numbers here to make a point. If we look at actual numbers, though, I'd say that you can make the argument that the cheaper alternatives are actually better than Jimenez / Gallardo... if you limit to the small sample size of "2016 so far.")

Matt Perez said...

So, good moves are luck and bad moves are skill? Fair enough.

There's actually a pretty linear relationship between ERA and wins. A pitcher with an ERA between 4 and 4.5 wins 47% of the time (that he gets a decision). A pitcher with an ERA between 4.5 and 5 wins 43%. Next group wins 39%, then 36%.

The major drop off is guys that have an ERA between 6.5 and 7. Their win percentage drops from 31% to 21%. This is only when they get a decision.

Pip said...

No. Gambles are lucky if they work or unlucky if they don't, but they are gambles. Please don't infer something I didn't intend.
Cruz was a lucky opportunity and a gamble that turned out well.
Jiminez and Gallardo were carefully thought out incredibly stupid moves.
Brach was a gamble, Mclouth was a gamble, and such moves are common and no one expects perfect Success. But Gallardo/Jiminez were carefully considered and planned and were bad signings even at the time. There's a big reason nobody else wanted either of them.
And we've been well over bad trades.

Matt Perez said...

I don't understand how Cruz is a gamble but Jimenez and Gallardo were thought out moves. Who wanted Cruz? Who wanted Trumbo?

Pip said...

Matt, Seattle wanted Cruz. They had a deal worked out but they wouldn't guarantee Cruz time in the field so he backed out. When he did, Dan was able to quickly capitalize on that opportunity. It was very close to ST start time, maybe even after ST had started, so a make-good contract was Cruz's best option at the late date.
Regarding the pitchers, Dan waited till extremely late in the season, when most options were gone.
I remember reading here in fall 2013 about all the reasonable affordable options and Dan ignored almost all of them and signed Jiminez in January-ish.
(We can be happy that he failed to sign Arroyo, but that was also a questionable attempt made because no one else was available by then.)
Last off-season, he apparently tried to get Latos and a couple other guys but failed, and I don't fault him for trying.
But there was no particular urgency to sign either because no one was clamoring to sign them.
Dan decided that each was worth the money and the draft pick despite oceans of reasons against it.
That is carefully considered and undeniably foolish even at the time.
He avoided many better choices for unknown reasons but was happy to give Gallardo 22 million.
And his gift of trading away worthwhile prospects for nothing is also well known.
I view the trade deadline with concern, but I've already resigned myself to a failed draft.

Jon Shepherd said...

Most players are wanted at a certain price. Seattle kind of wanted Cruz, but did not come close to his terms and were wary of a short term deal while giving up a pick. Orioles has an option of one or two years, but had reservations about Cruz and chose only to sign him for a single season.