Sunday, March 27, 2011

Ubaldo the Magnificent

When talking about the top pitchers in the majors, Ubaldo Jiminez is not always in the conversation. We rightly here about Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee. Felix Hernandez gets a lot of mentions. Clayton Kershaw gets a justifiable amount of mention as a good young pitcher. C. C. Sabathia is mentioned. Jon Lester and his teammate, Buchholz are usually mentioned. Verlander is usually in the mix. But Jiminez was magnificent last year and the strange thing is, the only time this writer heard him mentioned was how lucky his fast start was last year.

Ubaldo Jiminez is about as exciting a pitcher as there is in baseball. He's only going to be 27 in 2011 and he's won 34 games in the last two years. He "only" won 19 games last year after starting the season 15-1 by the All Star Game. And yes, the Rockies scored a bunch of runs in those early 15 wins. In his first 18 starts that led to that impressive record, the Rockies scored 5.3 runs a game when Ubaldo pitched.  But most of us know by now that wins and losses aren't always in the pitcher's control.  Yes, the Rockies scored 5.3 runs per game in his first 18 starts leading to 15 wins. But Ubaldo's ERA at that point was 2.20. It's not like he was wheezing into those wins. And how come after the All Star Game, few people mentioned the bad luck he received from his offense?

Before the All Star break, Jiminez had two no-decisions. After the break, there were four. Jiminez did struggle in July and parts of August. But starting August 21, he lost three straight decisions and in those three games, his team scored a combined four runs. The game after that, he won in a laugher. Then he got a no-decision in a 2-1 Rockies win. On September 17, he won his nineteenth game despite not being sharp. He pitched three more times and his team totally tanked on the offensive department.

Finishing with nineteen wins after having fifteen wins at the All Star Game left the impression that his second half was a disappointment. He did struggle in July, but his ERA in August was 2.83 and it was 3.57 in September. Those aren't numbers to sneeze at. The point is that you have to look at his season as a whole and the positive trend that his numbers have shown in the past three years. You also have to look at his record in the context that he pitched half of his games at Coors Field and managed to allow opposing batters there a .661 OPS the entire season in that atmosphere. To show how good Jiminez would be just about anywhere else, his OPS against on the road was .564! and Fangraphs calculate wins above replacement differently. If you go by B-R's way of that calculation, Ubaldo Jiminez had the highest WAR of any pitcher in the National League last year, yes, even higher than Roy Halladay and much higher than Adam Wainwright. Fangraphs gives him a slightly lower WAR but it was still high enough to rank in a tie for third in the entire majors. If you go by another statistic called win probability added or WPA, Jiminez was second in the majors behind Halladay.

Ubaldo Jiminez is known for his blazing fastball. He was once again near the top of the league in the average speed of that pitch in the National League. But Jiminez throws four plus pitches. His fastball was 30 runs above average last year, but his change up was slightly over nine and his curve and his slider were also above average. He had his best season getting batters to chase pitches out of the strike zone and it's very tough to square the bat on his pitches. His 16.2 percent line drive percentage against is very impressive.

Whenever a pitcher has as good a year as Jiminez, you want to look at more than just the 2.88 ERA. How did his pitching look in context? One of the ways you do that is to look at his fielding independent pitching or FIP. This statistic takes out factors the pitcher can't control and gives a truer picture of how well a pitcher pitched. Jiminez fared very well in FIP with a final number of 3.10

So what can we expect from Ubaldo the Magnificent in 2011? Heck, it's like anything else. Anything can happen once the real games start. But if you go by his trends, you'd have to think he'll have another outstanding season. In 2010, his hits per nine innings went down for the third straight year. His strikeouts per nine increased for the second year in a row. His ERA+ has increased two years in a row. And he is excellent at keeping the ball in the park--another amazing feat for a guy who starts half his games in Colorado.

Baseball Prospectus predicts Ubaldo Jiminez will finish 17-12 with an ERA of 4.00. While the win total sounds about right these days for one of the top pitchers in the league, the Fan is definitely under on the ERA. As good as 2010 was, we probably still haven't seen how good Ubaldo Jiminez can be.

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