06 July 2016

Ubaldo Jimenez Wasn't Always Terrible

Your first memories of something are always the most vivid ones. The ones that stick the longest, that you judge the coming ones against. I started getting deeper into baseball in 2010, the year that Ubaldo Jimenez finished third in NL Cy Young voting. With a wicked fastball that averaged 96 and touched 100 MPH at times, a devastating slider and a change that kept hitters honest, Jimenez was the last true ace I can remember getting it done at Coors. By using park and time adjusted statistics, Jimenez' 63 ERA- in 2010 equals what Noah Syndergaard is doing this year, and he kept it up for 221 innings. In Coors!

So that's why sometimes I look at Ubaldo Jimenez' player page on Baseball Reference sometimes. It feels almost like visiting an old friend's grave. Yesterday I was paying my respects, and came across this fun fact. After serving up a grand slam to the Mariners' Seth Smith on Sunday, July 3, Jimenez now has the same home run total in 80 IP this season as he did in 221 IP in 2010. That total is ten.

The back half of the O's rotation is an on-fire garbage can, and Ubaldo likely won't recapture anything close to his 2010 peak down the stretch. Nobody should expect him to. He currently leads all of baseball in earned runs after a few implosions, and he leads the AL in walks. His 4 year/$50M contract is up after next season, and at age 33 with rapidly declining velocity the market for his arm will be thin.

Basically, things are looking down for Ol' Ubaldo, so I thought I would take some time to look back on his dominance with some numbers and GIFs. The first thing that made me fall in love with him is his unique delivery in which he literally looks like he's reaching back for more. The backwards rock and arm extension have always been there, and he experimented with an over the head movement before his delivery in 2015 that was funky.

He might be worth negative 1.3 WAR as of this writing, and he might flame out of the league in a few years, but Ubaldo Jimenez was pretty awesome and it's worth looking back at some of the highlights from his stellar 2010 campaign. 

1. The No-Hitter

The crown jewel of any legendary pitching season is a no-hitter. Jimenez didn't win the Cy Young, but the no-no sure helped smooth over some of his bumps (he ran a 3.7 BB/9 in 2010; some things never change) and make him compare more favorably against prime Roy Halladay and Adam Wainwright.

Jimenez needed 128 pitches (throwing just 72 for strikes and walking six batters) to throw the first no-hitter in Rockies history against a Braves offense that was a hell of a lot better than this year's scrubs. He had trouble locating his offspeed and breaking stuff (which led to the six walks) but his fastball was the money pitch, touching 100 MPH several times. Here are some nasty examples.

Exhibit A
97 MPH painted on the inside corner. 

Exhibit B
 A young, pre-faceguard Jason Heyward. So innocent.

Exhibit C
And a particularly devastating splitter to Eric Hinske for good measure.

Other great moments from the no-hitter: Jimenez helped out his own cause with an RBI single, and Dexter Fowler made an incredible diving catch in center to keep it intact. There's something about Dexter Fowler and no-nos.

2. The Scorching Start

If you like wins, Jimenez won 15 of his first 16 starts in 2010. Since the five-man rotation became the norm, only Pedro Martinez, Greg Maddux, Steve Carlton, and Joaquin Andujar have accomplished that feat. The gaudy win totals were somewhat aided by the Rockies' potent offense, but he was a straight up workhorse, reeling off 14 consecutive quality starts out of the gates.

Looking at his first 11 starts through April and May, he was completely unhittable.

According to WPA (Win Probability Added), Jimenez alone accounted for over three wins for the Rockies in just 80.1 IP. The stretch included the no-hitter, two complete game shutouts, a 13 strikeout gem, and eight outings with Game Scores of 70 or higher. Perhaps the most impressive part of this stretch is that he managed to keep his ERA under 1.00 for 80 IP while posting a very average 2.7 K:BB ratio.

Jimenez dropped off considerably after the first two months, posting a 4.41 ERA in June and a 6.04 ERA in July. But as Jake Arrieta showed last year, Cy Young voters love otherworldly hot streaks. Especially when they happen at Coors

3. The First and Only Coors Workhorse

The no-hitter pitch count ran up to 128 pitches, and Jimenez followed it up five days later with a scoreless 121-pitch outing. Maybe Manager Jim Tracy was possessed by the spirit of Dusty Baker, or maybe this was normal in 2010, but Jimenez threw 120+ pitches in nine starts that season. He made three of those 120+ pitch starts in a 17 day period in August. All you need to see to understand the kind of toll that takes on an arm is this velocity chart.

For some reason the time axis is messed up, but the sudden drop off in velocity lines up perfectly with the beginning of his 2011 season. We can probably thank Jim Tracy for the 90-92 MPH garbage heaters that we're used to now. 

Jimenez was not impervious to fatigue or the thin Rocky Mountain air. His home ERA was 0.56 higher than on the road, his OPS allowed was a full .100 higher at home, his K/9 was 0.5 lower at home. He was human, and humans get shelled at Coors occasionally, but he was also the first and only workhorse to ever pitch for Colorado.

Here is a complete list of Rockies pitchers who have surpassed 200 IP in a season, sorted by their ERAs. Notice how by ERA+ many of those seemingly pedestrian seasons were actually well above league average when you factor in the Coors effect.

And this is a complete list of Rockies pitchers who have posted sub-3.00 ERAs and qualified for the ERA title.

The Colorado Rockies have only existed for 25 years, but it's safe to say that Ubaldo Jimenez owns the most (only?) dominant season in the team's history. That doesn't change the fact that the O's are paying him $13 million for what's shaping up to be a -2 WAR season, but it makes it a little easier to swallow knowing that Jimenez is kinda, sort of a legend.

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