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May 11, 2012

Raising Aces

Where's Ubaldo?

by Doug Thorburn

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Ubaldo Jimenez is a fascinating example of how a pitcher performance can turn sour due to the influence of mechanics.

Ben Lindbergh recently noted the precipitous drop in Ubaldo's  fastball velocity, which has lost four full ticks since his 2010 breakout, averaging just under 93 mph so far this season. Never known for his control, the right-handed Jimenez has reached new heights with the free pass in 2012, handing out 6.3 walks per nine innings compared to a career rate of four walks per nine. His ground-ball percentage has also suffered a decline, dropping 10 percentage points from two years ago to contribute to a homer rate that is almost double his career average. All of his stats are trending in the wrong directions, with a career-low K rate and an AL-high 25 walks allowed over six starts.

Ubaldo Jimenez

 

2012

Career

Strikeout rate

12.5%

21.2%

Walk rate

15.6%

8.5%

Home run rate

3.1%

1.7%

Ground-ball rate

39.1%

49.8%

The Cleveland Indians' brass must be wondering what happened to the star pitcher whom they thought they acquired for top pitching prospects Drew Pomeranz and Alex White last summer. Jimenez was coming off possibly the greatest season in the history of Mile High hurlers, good enough to finish third in the Cy Young voting, including a dominant first half that earned him the starting nod for the N.L. squad in the 2010 All-Star Game. BABIP regression in the first half of 2011 masked stable secondary ratios, with strikeout and walk rates that were a dead match for those of the previous season. A measure of regression was to be expected following the 2010 explosion, and a rocky Cleveland debut could be somewhat explained by the transition to a new league with designated hitters, but the continued demise of Jimenez in 2012 is nothing short of appalling.

Clearly, something has changed. To study the issue, I compared Ubaldo's latest start with his final outing of 2010, checking for any mechanical alterations over that span. The archive game from October 2010 occurred outside of his torrid first half, though his final line was All-Star worthy with eight shutout innings of three-hit baseball. On Sunday, Jimenez blanked the red-hot Rangers over seven frames, though his five free passes marked the third time in the young season that he had given up that many bases on balls. He earned the W on Sunday, as opposed to the October 2010 game, in which the Rockies failed to provide the run support for Jimenez to garner his 20th victory. However, there is no doubt that the 2010 contest marked a superior performance for the right-hander.

 

October 2, 2010

May 6, 2012

Innings Pitched

8

7

Runs

0

0

Hits

3

2

Strike outs

10

6

Walks

2

5

Avg. Fastball Velocity

96.5 mph

92.3 mph

Max Fastball Velocity

98.6 mph

94.7 mph

Despite some surface-level similarities in the box score, the Ubaldo Jimenez who showed up in Cleveland last Sunday was not the pitcher who conquered the thin Colorado air. The run-prevention column might indicate dominance, but his performance was saturated with mechanical irregularities and several hard-hit balls that were claimed by the defense. Jimenez has a unique mechanical signature, and archived footage from MLB.tv helped to confirm my preconceived notions of his delivery, but when I sat down to watch his most recent start, I was transported to a world of bizarro Ubaldo.

Mechanical Disparity No. 1: Posture
Posture is simultaneously one of the easiest mechanical elements to identify and one of the most critical, so Ubaldo's exaggerated spine-tilt stood out when analyzing his most recent start. Two weeks ago, I responded to a reader question by referring to Jimenez as a rare example of a pitcher who has “decent posture” in addition to a relatively high arm slot, a statement that rang true when evaluating the right-hander during his peak years. However, his modern mechanics leave much to be desired.


 

Jimenez displayed minimal spine-tilt on the pitch from 2010 (left), but his posture has gone off the reservation in 2012 (right). The posture on the left would receive a “60” grade in my mechanical notebook, though it represents the high end of a pitcher who sat closer to “55” overall in 2010. The 2012 posture grades out as a “40,” laying the first brick in the foundation of his performance woes, impacting both his pitch command and release-point depth.

Mechanical Disparity No. 2: Stride
The greatest quirk in the delivery of Ubaldo Jimenez is an incredibly open stride, thanks to sudden hip rotation near foot strike that swings the front leg open like the door of a saloon, with the foot landing to the glove-side of the imaginary centerline from rubber to home plate. Each pitcher is unique when it comes to stride direction, in the sense that the ideal foot placement will be that which allows the pitcher to reach full extension at release point. I have no qualms about the open stride on its surface, given the signature-specific nature of stride direction, but Jimenez has struggled to coordinate this portion of his delivery for years. 

Jimenez is very inconsistent with his wide stride, with varying positions from pitch to pitch throughout the game. The two screenshots above have nearly identical placement of the drag foot, finishing outside the rubber to the right of the “C” on the mound, but the front foot is positioned quite differently for the two deliveries. The first-inning pitch on the left is extremely wide, with the cleat lined up with the vertical line of the “C,” near the left side of the rubber, while the second-inning example on the right is lined up closer to the middle of the rubber and the center of the letter “C.” The stride direction looks completely off-line in the left-hand picture, based on where the spine and hips are turned with respect to the target, as if he is striding toward the FirstEnergy ad. His posture is rough, and the drag foot finishes far to the right of the centerline on both deliveries, complicating a release point that is as shallow as it is mis-timed.

Mechanical Disparity No. 3: Torque
Jimenez had extreme torque during his heyday, combining heavy hip rotation with a huge shoulder load to crank out 100-mph heaters. His hip-shoulder separation has shrunk along with his velocity over the past two seasons, and a four-seam fastball that used to bottom out at 95 mph rarely hits that mark at ceiling in 2012.

The above pictures display his shoulder load just prior to foot strike, as Jimenez prepares to initiate trunk rotation. The difference is subtle and made all the more difficult to detect given the discrepancy in viewing angles between the two television feeds, but Ubaldo has some additional upper-body load on the pitch from 2010 (left), and he delays trunk rotation by a split-second when compared to the pitch from Sunday's game (right). The pitch from 2012 looks as though he has just triggered the firing of the shoulders, with the front shoulder beginning to open.

Jimenez reaches maximum torque after foot strike in these screenshots, though an early trigger somewhat limits the separation on the right-side pitch from 2012. The left-side torque created a 99-mph fastball, and the shade of extra shoulder-load helped to keep the front shoulder closed into foot strike. The right-side pitch was Ubaldo's best fastball of Sunday, approaching 95 mph and finding its destination without consulting a navigation system. It achieved torque that came close to peak, but even the best pitches from Sunday were no match for his eighth-inning fastballs of October 2010.

Notice the progression, how the extra upper-body twist on the top left keeps the shoulder closed into foot strike, such that we can still see a hint of the mitt near his mid-section, allowing Jimenez to maximize his hip-shoulder separation prior to firing the shoulders (bottom left). Contrast that sequence with Ubaldo on the right, where the front shoulder begins to open prior to foot strike (top right), and the right-hander is already executing trunk rotation by the time the landing foot has touched down, with no leather in sight.

The phrase “shoulder flying open” is often used to describe this phenomenon, where early trunk rotation will result in a lead-shoulder that begins to open up to the glove side, indicating a timing error within the kinetic sequence. The disparate viewing angles suggest that it should be easier to see the glove in the screenshot on the lower-right, all else being equal. However, the front side has already opened up too far for the mitt to remain in view. The open shoulder has plagued Jimenez throughout his career, and the issue is compounded by his current lack of torque at foot strike.

Mechanics Report Cards

 

October 2, 2010

May 6, 2012

Balance

50

40

Momentum

40

50

Torque

80

60

Posture

55

40

Release Distance

45

45

Repetition

40

30

GPA

51.7

44.2

Jimenez has lost mechanical efficiency at nearly every stop on the kinetic chain. He has always struggled to harness consistent timing of his delivery, but the situation has become so volatile this season as to approach Carlos Marmol levels of chaos. What was once some of the greatest torque in the major leagues has regressed to merely plus, and while the grades suggest that separation took the biggest hit, the largest slam to Ubaldo's performance is a 15-point drop in posture that crosses over the fat part of the bell curve, combining with the manic timing issues to obliterate his ability to hit targets. 

The postural instability of 2012 is preceded by poor balance earlier in the delivery. Jimenez leans back after maximum leg lift, and his head trails behind his center of mass as he approaches foot strike. The MLB.tv footage from October 2010 lacked a side view for proper comparison, but photos taken for Getty Images demonstrate that the imbalance was less pronounced during his final start that year.    Balance is an indicator of functional strength, and Ubaldo's instability indicates that he currently falls short of peak form. An adjustment to his workout regimen might be necessary to regain his efficiency of motion.

Inability to command his own body mass is preventing Jimenez from finding mechanical consistency in several phases of the delivery, and the imbalance manifests itself after foot strike as the head drifts out in front of the body and tilts to the glove side. The lack of torque that sits behind the curtain of his velocity drop is tied to diminished flexibility, which again points to a conditioning-based solution to his mechanical maladies.

There was one area of improvement for Jimenez over the past 19 months: momentum that has upgraded from a pedestrian pace in October 2010 to a league-average burst in May 2012. The uptick in momentum helps to lengthen a stride that is otherwise unimpressive for a 6'5” pitcher, though some of the stride benefits are mitigated by the postural instability, effectively washing out the grade for release distance. The former Rockie has always been a mess from the stretch, failing to find any measure of consistency with an abbreviated leg lift that stunts his stride and disrupts his already shaky timing. The stretch issues helped to spark a two-out walk-a-thon in the third inning, when a classic case of alternating over- and under-rotation of the shoulders conspired to load the bases with freebies.

The level of mechanical depreciation in Ubaldo's delivery is indicated by the drop in his GPA from 2010 to this season, taking him from an above-average mark to one that falls short of major-league standards. Several variables affect the overall strength of pitching mechanics, but I have found that the majority of problems stem from just a handful of elements, the most common of which are repetition of timing, postural stability, and torque. It is remarkable how often a pitcher's struggles come down to these few categories, and how often correcting these fundamental flaws will have a ripple effect that improves other mechanical elements occuring elsewhere in the kinetic chain.

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

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