Saturday, July 30, 2011

What's With the Ubaldo Questions?

Two questions keep coming back to this writer concerning Ubaldo Jimenez, the pitcher for the Colorado Rockies. The first is: Why do the Rockies dangle him as trade bait? And secondly: Why do bloggers question Ubaldo's stuff? Here is just one example of doubt concerning the pitcher. Buster Olney is another that has expressed others' concern for Jimenez and his stuff this season. Perhaps the questions about the health of Ubaldo Jimenez are a direct result of the Rockies wanting to trade him in the first place. They must know something everybody else doesn't. But heck, any team that wants to deal for the pitcher will look at the medicals, right? So what gives?

Ubaldo Jimenez is one of those cornerstone pitchers for a pitching staff. He's clearly the best pitcher on the Rockies. Plus, he's just the kind of pitcher you need in the thin air of Coors Field. Power is the way to go in a park that represses movement. And more and more, analysts focus on only the things a pitcher can control and not so much the win-loss record and at times, even the ERA. The things a pitcher can control are considered strikeouts, walks and homers. Despite the 6-9 record and an ERA of 4.20--numbers that seem pedestrian--Ubaldo Jimenez is very similar this year to the Ubaldo Jimenez of previous years. Here are the numbers for the last four years broken down by category:

  • Strikeouts per nine:  2008 - 7.79, 2009 - 8.17, 2010 - 8.69 and 2011 - 8.56
  • Walks per nine: 2008 - 4.67, 2009 - 3.51, 2010 - 3.74 and 2011 - 3.47
  • Homers per nine: 2008 - 0.50, 2009 - 0.54, 2010 - 0.41 and 2011 - 0.74

Those numbers hardly look like a pitcher that is struggling with his stuff. Oh, the homers per nine is up slightly, but that's still a good number.

To be totally fair and forthcoming, there are a few numbers that cause a bit of concern. First, his line drive percentage is up fairly significantly. After averaging a line drive percentage of 18.1 percent for his career, that number is up to 20.8 percent. And secondly, his rate of infield pop ups is way down from his past two years when he induced an inordinate amount of those weak outs. Fangraphs rates pitches and gives them a value of runs above average. Ubaldo's score for his fastball and slider are way down from previous years. So that's something. His swinging strike percentage is also down from his career average of 9.0 to 7.7 percent. Is that the evidence we are talking about?

It's been said that Ubaldo's velocity is down. Is it? Ubaldo's career four-seam fastball has been 95.4 MPH. This year, he is averaging 93.9. So yeah, that's down. His slider is down three miles per hour. His two-seam fastball is down from last year's 96.3 MPH to this year's 94 MPH. But two years ago and the year before that, this pitch was in the 91.5 MPH range. In his last two games, he's been hovering in the high 93 to low 94 range on both his fastballs. So perhaps there are small reasons for concern in those numbers. His fastball is topping out around where he used to average.

But this writer keeps coming back to the fact that his K/9 and FIP (and xFIP) are consistent with his performance historically. ZIPs projects that Jimenez will go 6-2 with a 3.21 ERA in the rest of his 11 starts (he pitches today). Why wouldn't anyone want that kind of performance? Pitching is a premium in Colorado. It always has been. For the first time in their history, they have an ace. Ubaldo Jimenez is an ace. He is the kind of pitcher to build a staff around. He isn't the kind of pitcher to let go to be an ace somewhere else.

There have been whispers that the Rockies weren't happy with the condition he came to camp in or the fact that he made a European trip before Spring Training. That was compounded by missing his first couple of starts due to non-arm related muscle issues. Once Ubaldo Jimenez did start pitching, it wasn't pretty. His start mirrored the Rockies season that has been disappointing. It seems that trading Ubaldo Jimenez would seriously weaken the overall pitching staff. So why do it? He'll be coming into big money soon, so that's probably a factor. His value will never be higher so perhaps the highest score of prospects could come back to the Rockies. But this writer just can't see trading away the anchor of your pitching staff.

Today's rumors are that the Red Sox are the hungriest for him. That would be simply unfair if that happened. As if they aren't stacked enough! But if they did get him, they would be that much better. Because this guy is a very good pitcher.

It makes some sense for there to be some concern about Ubaldo's velocity, swinging strike percentage and pop up percentage. But despite all those things, his results in the things he can control are pretty much the same as always. This Fan can't get why the Rockies would even think about trading him. But this Fan can also understand why teams would salivate at the possibility.

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