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June 17, 2010

Ahead in the Count

Is Jimenez In Over His Head?

by Matt Swartz

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Ubaldo Jimenez is a very talented pitcher.  After all, the vast majority of the pitchers on the planet cannot throw 100 mph while mixing in a nasty changeup, curveball, and slider.  However, the Ubaldo Jimenez who has 12 wins a month before the All-Star break and carries a microscopic 1.16 ERA into his start for the Rockies against the Twins at Target Field this afternoon has not been very different than the regular front of the rotation flamethrower that posted a 3.47 ERA while playing half his games in Coors Field last year.

Looking at SIERA is an excellent starting point to get a sense of how well someone is truly pitching.  No metric can be the beginning and ending statement in a player’s performance, but SIERA does a very good job at determining how well pitchers are doing—particularly those who help themselves with good ground-ball rates, like Jimenez. Last year, Jimenez posted a 3.60 SIERA, good for 20thamong major-league starters. That's fantastic. The majority of pitchers with 3.60 ERAs in any given year are lucky and see their ERAs go up the season, while pitchers with 3.60 SIERAs tend to have ERAs that stay low.  In Jimenez’s case, his ERA has plummeted.  However, his SIERA has improved to just 16thamong major league starters at 3.43.  That is a slight improvement but it also indicates that Jimenez has been a very lucky pitcher.

Sabermetrics has long backed off the claim that pitchers do not control their batting average on balls in play (BABIP), but what we have learned is that pitchers do not have very much control over it. Jimenez has a .235 BABIP, compared to the major-league average of .298.  There are great pitchers that are capable of dropping their BABIPs to .280 on a consistent basis, but none who can mentally will weakly hit balls from becoming bloop singles or 20-hop singles. And it is not possible for a pitcher to allow only hits on 23.5 percent of balls in play over a prolonged period of time. The pitchers that tend to hold their BABIPs down also do not play their games at Coors Field.  Even with Colorado’s terrific defense, the rest of the Rockies pitchers have only a .292 BABIP. Flamethrowers can certainly hold BABIP down a few extra points, but Jimenez has been fortunate to come in so far below his similar BABIP-preventing fastball wizards.

Breaking down Jimenez's BABIP, we see that his line-drive rate is 17 percent, just below the 18 percent number he had in both 2007 and 2008. Pitchers have extremely little ability to control their line-drive rate, even if they do have a little bit more control over the actual BABIP on line drives (though not much). My theory is that hitters slow down their swings against pitchers like Jimenez. Thus, they square the ball up on the bat as often, but do not hit it as far. Jimenez's BABIP on line drives is .600, well below the major-league average of .722.  This is just not sustainable, especially in Coors Field where line drives fall in more than in the average park.

Pitchers do not have a large amount of control over the amount of ground balls that reach the outfield. The major league average is about 17 percent, but the Rockies’ defense is pretty good, which explains why 15 percent of Jimenez’s ground balls reached the outfield in 2009. However, this year only 11 percent of his ground balls have trickled through. That is not sustainable and also helps explains why his BABIP is likely to rise.

In fact, even though Jimenez has given up fewer hits on batted balls in play, his rate of doubles and triples has increase from 5.8 percent last year to 7.8 percent this season. However, his rate of singles on balls in play has fallen from 22 percent to 16 percent. The difference is a lack of weakly hit balls finding space to cause problems.

Even more fortunately, Jimenez has been able to strand over 90 percent of runners due to a .186 BABIP with men on base. There is no way that Jimenez can continue that performance. He has made some excellent pitches, but major league hitters are too good to let that kind of hit prevention to persist.

Jimenez’s BABIP has not only been the source of good luck. He has allowed only three home runs so far this year. The problem is that pitchers that keep home run rates down also keep the ball out of the outfield air, and while Jimenez is good at generating ground balls, he still has allowed 52 fly balls to reach the outfield, which means that he should have closer to seven home runs surrendered—his rate of home runs per outfield fly ball has dropped from 10.4 percent last season to 5.8 percent this year.  Pitchers that prevent home runs on fly balls (and not even Mariano Rivera can reliably get rates this low) generally also tend to cause pop-ups, but Jimenez’s pop-up rate has actually decreased from 6.4 percent last season to 5.1 percent this year. Instead of letting fewer balls reach the outfield in the air, Jimenez has seen an increase from 34 to 36 percent of his batted balls reach the outfield in the air. Those balls have just concentrated in the middle of the outfield, without flying over the fence. Chances are that some of those fly balls will find themselves on the other side of the wall soon enough.

Jimenez has not even missed more bats this year. His rate of swinging strikes has fallen from 9.6 percent in 2009 to 9.0 percent in 2010. He has made up for that by getting hitters to chase more pitches out of the zone—up from 24 percent last year to 27 percent this season. Meanwhile, he has also gotten them to look at more pitches in the strike zone (up from 35 percent last season to 41 percent this season).  With a similar number of pitches in the zone but fewer swings at the pitches that are easier to hit, it is no wonder that Jimenez has struck out more hitters as a result—up from 22 percent last year to 24 percent this season, while his walk rate has stayed roughly constant, going from 9.3 percent to 9.6 percent.

It is tough to write an article calling for the fall of Jimenez, because the fall just is not going to be that bad. The 26-year-old Dominican is one of the 20 best pitchers in the major leagues, and could get better given his youth. There are very few pitchers who can strike batters out so easily, all while generating 55-56 percent ground balls, a feat Jimenez has accomplished three years in a row. Even if his 3.43 SIERA matches his ERA the rest of the way, he will still finish with an ERA around 2.60, and he’s a good bet to get 20 wins with 12 already in the bank. I think he wins the National League Cy Young award this season and is good enough to do it more than once in his career. However, most pitchers who win the Cy Young have some luck come their way, and Jimenez is no exception.  In fact, he’s been fantastically lucky which has finally drawn plenty of attention to the fact that he is a great pitcher. That said, he is just not the best, at least not yet.

Matt Swartz is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Matt's other articles. You can contact Matt by clicking here

Related Content:  Ubaldo Jimenez,  The Who,  Flamethrower

23 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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OTSgamer

I like Jimenez, but I think you've got it right, there is just no way that any of this is sustainable. No pitcher is going to be able to have that low of a BABIP, etc. And furthermore, it's just common sense... 12-1 with basically a 1.0 ERA is not sustainable in any environment probably, but certainly when the pitcher is playing at Coors Field on a .500 team (and one that can struggle at times with walks, i.e. see the no-hitter that featured six walks).

Either way, though, it's been a great ride and a joy to watch. I love seeing things in baseball I've never seen before, and I'm pretty sure I've never seen someone his dominant for this long in my lifetime.

Jun 17, 2010 05:34 AM
rating: 0
 
Playahard9

He's good...there is NO doubting that. But along with all of this information, you look at the teams he's faced and he has had a pretty easy. He's faced Arizona 3 times, SD twice and SF, Wash twice. While his toughest starts have either been MIL in the first game of the year or LA.
To have the ERA and record he's got, you know he's really good. But he has had a pretty easy road so far.

Jun 17, 2010 06:36 AM
rating: 1
 
mattjozga

Furthermore, he plays in the NL West, along with these teams, and the unbalanced schedule means he will always face them more than teams in the other divisions. Thus, it's not lucky that he's faced them, it's only natural and will continue.

Jun 17, 2010 08:44 AM
rating: 0
 
dianagram

FWIW, amongst NL pitchers with at least 50 IP, he's faced the 31st toughest group of batters:

http://www.baseballprospectus.com/statistics/sortable/index.php?cid=417049

Jun 17, 2010 09:49 AM
rating: 3
 
evo34

Good point. In other words, he has not faced an easier than usual set of batters.

Jun 17, 2010 18:54 PM
rating: 0
 
Edwincnelson

I think your discounting those teams playhard. Arizona, Milwaukee, and LA are 3rd, 4th, 5th in run production and he shut them all down. Even his one "bad" start was in a pouring rainstorm where he clearly was having trouble griping the ball. He's just been lights out.

Now as far as luck how does SIERA rate some of the dominant performances throughout the years? Would SIERA call Bob Gibson really lucky and predicted halfway through the 1968 season that he was surely going to regress? If so does that mean Ubaldo may be able to keep this up despite conventional wisdom suggesting otherwise?


Jun 17, 2010 07:23 AM
rating: 0
 
OTSgamer

I think the Gibson argument is a bad one for three reasons:

(1) There is no way to reasonably compare the offensive production from 1968 to what we have in the modern era. There were literally TEN pitchers that year that posted an ERA of 2.08 or lower, and seven of those guys were under 2.00. There was a reason they lowered the mound after that year.

(3) Luck probably didn't not factor THAT much into Gibson in 1968. He had a BABIP of .230 (the Cards' team BABIP was roughly .260), and a lot of pitchers posted lower BABIPs than that in the 1960's. All in all, most of the models I have seen that tried to base his predicted ERA in '68 based on independent variables have him somewhere around a 2.00 ERA, so you're only talking about a difference of about eight-tenths of a run per nine innings, whereas the difference between SIERA and ERA for Jimenez is almost three times that much. Now obviously that is comparing slightly different things (I don't know about SIERA for Gibson in '68), but I do think it is very telling that there wasn't THAT much luck built into Gibson's '68 campaign.

(2) Obviously luck is a random variable and like any random variable if you cover a large enough of a sample you will see individual cases with extreme outcomes, particularly over relatively short periods. And if you have a period of extreme luck matched up with someone with the skills of Jimenez, you can see some truly amazing numbers posted. And you could, perhaps, have that luck over the course of an entire year (which is still a fairly short span in the big picture). I don't think Matt is trying to say it is outright impossible, just that there is a lot of luck involved here and that it would take an occurrence of ungodly improbability for this streak of Jimenez to continue, particularly at Coors Field.

Jun 17, 2010 11:05 AM
rating: 1
 
wonkothesane1

WRT (1), doesn't SIERA take into account the league ERA for the year? I'm pretty sure FIP does.

Jun 17, 2010 13:05 PM
rating: 0
 
OTSgamer

One of the statheads will have to confirm, but I want to say no. My understand is that SIERA only has x variables

(1) Plate appearances
(2) Strikeouts
(3) Walks
(4) Ground Balls
(5) Fly Balls
(6) Putouts

I'm pretty sure FIP does include some sort of league adjustment, though, but I'm not sure if is used to take league ERA into account.

Jun 17, 2010 14:05 PM
rating: -1
 
OTSgamer

Obviously "x" is supposed to be six. I hate typos.

Jun 17, 2010 14:07 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Matt Swartz
BP staff

SIERA is determined based on the current run-scoring environment that has been pretty similar over the last 17 years. That could change, at which point we wound change SIERA. The only difference in between OTSgamer's list and the true list is that the "P" term is Popouts, not putouts.

Jun 17, 2010 14:36 PM
 
Richard Bergstrom

To use an analogy...

Yahtzee is a game of luck, but skillful players know how to take advantage of it.

I think any player can get lucky and go on a good run, even for the length of a season... but good players can take advantage of that luck to do even better.

On the luck note (and since this is Matt's article), wasn't Cole Hamels supposed to have been unlucky last year and expected to rebound this year?

Jun 17, 2010 16:02 PM
rating: -2
 
evo34

I think Hamels' ERA improving from 4.32 last year to 3.74 this year qualifies as a rebound.

Jun 17, 2010 18:58 PM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

Eh I should've put my foot in my mouth. I'm not sure why I thought Hamels was doing bad... guess I had seen too many bylines about the Phillies needing a starter and I was remembering his bad April.

I should've checked first.

Jun 17, 2010 19:58 PM
rating: -1
 
BP staff member Matt Swartz
BP staff

Bob Gibson did not play in the era of batted ball statistics, so we do not have SIERA on him. I'm suspecting that his SIERA would exceed his ERA, but mostly because he record ERA was by definition lower than all his other ERAs and I assume that he must have had some good luck. Or, to put it another way, what are the odds that Gibson had bad luck that year? Really, really low, right? Therefore, I assume he probably had some good luck, especially because it was his best year. I doubt there are many pitchers that have ever had bad luck during their career year in terms of ERA.

Jun 17, 2010 14:38 PM
 
RallyKiller

I agree with Edwincnelson. Those teams haven't been offensive slouches. And I watched the rainstorm game, ever fearful that my fantasy ace would suffer an injury like a groin strain.

I, too, would like to see a SIERA analysis of Gibson in 1968. And what about the season Whitey Ford went 25-4 with an ERA of 3.21, if my memory is correct? I think it was the year Maris broke the HR record, which would make it 1961.

Essentially, I think that although it is probably rare, a player or pitcher can have a "lucky" season that basically lacks the entire year.

Jun 17, 2010 08:22 AM
rating: 0
 
RallyKiller

Oops. make that "lasts the entire year."

Jun 17, 2010 08:23 AM
rating: 0
 
OTSgamer

A few more things I'd point out with Jimenez:

(1) As of this writing, Jimenez is currently on pace for approximately 32 wins (against 3 losses) and approximately 226 strikeouts. And that comes in Coors Field, playing on a .500 team. Having someone argue that, given that, he's overachieving and will see some regression to the mean should be by no means surprising.

(2) Jimenez also leads the league in PAP. Granted this is an era where teams tend to not try to kill their starting pitching, but even so.

(3) One more luck factor to through in there... Jimenez has gotten incredible support from his bullpen (despite the injury to Huston Street). He has turned it over to the bullpen with a lead 11 times, and they have gotten him a victory all 11 times, even though several of those games were very close when Jimenez went out. All told, in the approximately 25 innings that the Rockies bullpen has picked up for Jimenez, as a group they have an ERA of approximately 2.1.

Jun 17, 2010 12:38 PM
rating: -1
 
Edwincnelson

Wins aside the amazing strand rate that Jimenez has posted is almost entirely his own as he's finishing almost every inning as he has he been pulled in favor of a reliever only once.

I don't entirely disagree with Matt's assertion. What I do grow a bit tired of is the complete confidence with which sabermetrics establishes what is even possible, and to say that Jimenez's BABIP or strand rate is unsustainable is a little silly. Now, is it unlikely to continue? Sure. Impossible? No.

Jun 17, 2010 14:26 PM
rating: -2
 
BP staff member Matt Swartz
BP staff

I'm not sure you read the article very carefully. I looked at the BABIP in detail to determine how much of it was flukiness. Given the rate of ground balls reaching the outfield was flukishly low but the ground ball rate was not, given that the number of balls that reached the outfield in the air was the same as historically, I determined he wasn't seeing much of a change in his batted ball profile. I also discussed the normal range of BABIP that can be attributed to skill, which Ubaldo's numbers fall out of. Given that the drop in BABIP is a function of 40% of line drives being caught and 89% of ground balls being fielded by infielders, I think I have looked at it carefully enough like you would suggest.

Jun 17, 2010 14:40 PM
 
mickeyg13

I can't speak for Matt and others, but when I use the word "unsustainable" that does not mean I think it's completely impossible for the phenomenon to sustain for some finite period of time. If you go to the casino and double your money in a night of blackjack, I will call that unsustainable. If you do the same thing the next night it does not prove me wrong. Note that you might have done this while skillfully applying blackjack strategy and card-counting skills, but you still performed way above your long-term true talent rate...nobody is *that* good at blackjack.

It's possible Jimenez will continue to post these unsustainable numbers, but calling them unsustainable was warranted according to how I use the term.

Jun 17, 2010 20:38 PM
rating: 1
 
Paul Gardner

I couldn't help a raised eyebrow a few weeks ago when Jimenez faced Toronto a few weeks ago in Coors and gave up 3 runs. Not terrible surely, but given that he was in the midst of a run where he was giving up a run or less per 9, it did jump out at me.
It makes me wonder how much different his numbers would be pitching for Baltimore this year. Let's say he'd pitched in Baltimore all along and he was facing Toronto at Camden Yards. Would he still have given up 3 runs? In other words, how much does familiarity factor in to Jimenez's dominance of hitters in his division. Is it simply that NL West hitters are that bad or has Jimenez learned how to get them out and is there a metric for tracking that.
I've seen situations where a certain pitcher will "own" a great hitter, but eventually the hitter figures that pitcher out and reverses the trend. I can't recall it going the other way, but I would guess that it does.
Is there a stat for tracking "learning"?

Jun 18, 2010 04:12 AM
rating: -2
 
evo34

The question of the alleged "weakness" of Jimenez's opposition has already been answered in the comments above. He has faced average quality hitters for an NL starting pitcher.

On the other issue: generally speaking, hitters benefit more than pitchers from familiarity.

Jun 18, 2010 15:10 PM
rating: -1
 
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