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April 2, 2012

The BP First Take

Monday, April 2

by Daniel Rathman

A little over a week ago, Ubaldo Jimenez and Troy Tulowitzki exchanged words in a Denver Post column. Yesterday, they exchanged them during the bottom of the first inning at Salt River Fields.

There’s more to the story, of course.

The spat between Jimenez and Tulowitzki began last year, when the latter was inked to a 10-year, $157.75 million extension, while the former was strung along and eventually traded to the Indians. From a business standpoint, negotiating a new deal with Jimenez was illogical for general manager Dan O’Dowd, considering that the Rockies already held reasonably-priced club options for the 2013 ($5.75 million) and 2014 ($8 million) seasons, and pitchers are a riskier long-term investment than hitters. Jimenez may have “seethed” over the Tulo and Carlos Gonzalez extensions, but he created his own negotiating disadvantage by coming to those team-friendly terms in 2009. He chose security then over big money now; the Rockies struck gold, and now he’s paying the price.

In the afore-linked column, Jimenez took his shots at the Rockies, emphasizing that he’s happy to be in Cleveland. Tulowitzki—the face of his franchise—got defensive. Neither said anything unreasonable. All was squared away… or, so it seemed.

The spat resurfaced yesterday when, with nobody on and two outs in the opening frame, a Jimenez fastball sailed into Tulowitzki’s elbow. Tulowitzki dropped his bat and began jawing at Jimenez. Jimenez dropped his glove and began jawing back at Tulowitzki. The benches cleared, but nobody fought and nobody was hurt.

Cooler heads certainly did not prevail after the game, either. Rockies manager Jim Tracy, upset that his star shortstop was in the hospital getting x-rays, called it “the most gutless act I have seen in 35 years of professional baseball.” Jimenez claimed that the pitch sailed inside, and that he only came after Tulowitzki because his former teammate took exception and called him names.

Regardless of any recent history between the two players, Tulowitzki’s reaction was understandable. He’s an emotional player, and the source of a mid-90s fastball at his elbow was a likely target for those emotions. Some might say that Jimenez should have manned up and stayed on the mound, but it’s not surprising that he felt the need to challenge Tulowitzki by coming forward, whether that move was fueled by the heat of the moment or the previous week’s spat.

The point is, we don’t know. We don’t know if Jimenez lost control of his heater and had a pitch aimed at the inside corner sail a foot too far to the right. We don’t know what Tulowitzki said. And we don’t know why Jimenez reacted to those words the way he did.

What we do know is that initial reports from Scottsdale suggested that we did know. Long before the video of the incident was uncovered by ESPN and posted online, those present described the sequence very differently. Indians beat writer Paul Hoynes tweeted that Jimenez “pounded his chest and walked toward Tulowitzki,” but did not mention—perhaps because he could not see it from the press box—Tulowitzki’s apparently inciting words. Others mentioned the spat in the papers days earlier, at least indirectly implying a connection.

All of that is true, but it also pushed those not at the game and without the background those reporters had to presume Jimenez was guilty. If Jimenez used a low-leverage point in a meaningless game to vent his frustrations with the Rockies and take a cheap shot at Tulowitzki, then the act certainly was gutless. But the point is, we don’t know.

The circumstantial evidence was laid out quickly on Sunday, leading many (myself included) to judge Jimenez immediately. But take a step back and rewind to Jimenez’s glory days with the Rockies, when Todd Helton called him a “smart” pitcher, The Denver Post featured his connection to his mom, and Tulowitzki told USA Today “I respect him” for staying grounded. Then, ask yourself: Does that sound like a man who would do what Jimenez is now accused of having done?

We now have two very different pictures of the 28-year-old Jimenez as he tries to resurrect his career in Cleveland. And the point is, we still don’t know—and we probably never will.

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

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