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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

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

BP Comment Quick Links

ethanwitte

This is a great article. If Jimenez were to see this, and work on the adjustments necessary, how long do you think it would be to re-gain that extra 4 mph?

May 11, 2012 03:50 AM
rating: 3
 
BP staff member Doug Thorburn
BP staff

It really depends on the pitcher. I have worked with players that can make mechanical fixes in a day, particularly when finding a previously-established delivery, and others that take weeks or even months to make the necessary adjustments.

Much of the timetable would depend on the conditioning aspect. It could take awhile if his functional strength and flexibility are far below his previous levels, and the preferred coaching technique for building that strength and flex will also play a role. For example, teams have only just begun to appreciate the important of training the back-side shoulder muscles for velocity, and many teams are still behind the curve so to speak.

It is also possible that 2009-2010 was peak Ubaldo, physically, and that he will never quite achieve the levels of his mid-20's.

May 11, 2012 13:48 PM
 
SaberTJ

Can't put words to how much of what you said in this response fascinates me. I need to make a career change.

May 11, 2012 17:04 PM
rating: 3
 
edwardarthur

Great, greats stuff!

Last year, the Indians were saying it was hard to fix Ubaldo mid-season, but wait 'til 2012. What you describe seems like an awful lot to fix, even with the semi-optimistic note in the last paragraph. Is this another lost year, or can this be improved substantially in-season? And if it can, are the Indians capable of doing it?

May 11, 2012 03:50 AM
rating: 2
 
SaberTJ

The Indians have said that they have been working with Ubaldo on some mechanical changes (I don't know specifically what they have suggested. They said it has been a hard/slow transition for him. I'd imagine that his flexibility and conditioning like Doug suggests could be limiting Ubaldo's progress towards a better delivery.

May 11, 2012 06:44 AM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Doug Thorburn
BP staff

I see no reason why the team would not try to fix his mechanics in-season (in-game is a whole other issue, though).

If it is really that "hard" - which I assume means that the 5-day interval between starts is not enough time to firmly establish a change and the team fears his game-day performance - then I would suggest pulling him from a start or three to make the tweaks. Aren't a few lost starts worth the incremental gains of fixing the problem for the rest of season?

SaberTJ mentioned Halladay, and that's a great example of a pitcher who was taken out of harm's way while he worked on rebuilding his delivery. Perhaps the Tribe should take note.



May 11, 2012 13:56 PM
 
SaberTJ

I would love for the Indians to sit him out for a few weeks or let him try things out in the minors. I think that the current standings are what keeping them from making such a drastic change. Even with Jimenez's struggles, he's not been bad enough to where I think they'd risk it. If the Indians were to be in the Twins' position I think it be a much easier corporate decision.

May 11, 2012 17:07 PM
rating: 1
 
nalex83

Ubaldo also doesn't have any options.

May 12, 2012 21:39 PM
rating: 0
 
SaberTJ

Also, FWIW. I really doubt the Indians would have made such a high risk trade if they hadn't already found mechanical flaws in Ubaldo prior to him joining the team.

May 11, 2012 07:01 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Doug Thorburn
BP staff

Yes, but that depends on each team's interpretation of "mechanical flaws."

Some teams are hands-off with mechanics, others have gurus that are trusted to identify and mold the player, but those gurus often have different systems and values for pitching mechanics.

Some (but not all) teams take their players to ASMI or Andrews Institute for motion analysis breakdowns, however not every team knows what to do with the results of those analyses.

We also have to consider that they cannot ask a player from another team to have that analysis conducted before the trade, and though they get a short window to do their own medical checks, that is not necessarily long enough to properly address the results.

May 11, 2012 14:02 PM
 
SaberTJ

Doug,

Have you had a chance to look at Ubaldo's mechanics during his few starts in Colorado in 2011? How often does a pitcher make such significant changes (by accident) like Ubaldo has?

I ask because a team trading a pitcher of Ubaldo's caliber with such a team friendly deal is unheard of. What is more likely? That the Rockies tried fixing his delivery to no avail, or simply didn't dig hard enough to discover Ubaldo's mechanic problems?

May 11, 2012 07:07 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Doug Thorburn
BP staff

His mechanics were inconsistent in 2011, but they looked more similar to 2010 than 2012. Things are really off this year.

Each hurler is a different entity each season, and they can even morph game-to-game. But when a pitcher is suddenly "on" or "off" for the first 2 months of the season, I take note, as those trends can be persistent in both directions. Perhaps there is an underlying physical issue to explain a collapse (i.e. strength), and perhaps there was an adjustment made to explain a breakout (i.e. added a pitch).

This gets to KG's definition of a True #1, and how it takes a few years to earn that label, because the best pitchers are reliable every time they take the mound start-to-start and year-to-year. Ubaldo never earned the True #1, especially once you consider how erratic he was at peak.

It is tough to say what the Rockies tried and what they knew, but they may have grown tired of Ubaldo's inconsistent shenanigans. Or perhaps they liked the idea of gaining two cost-controlled pitchers with legit upside for a guy whose value appeared to be on a downhill slope.

May 11, 2012 14:14 PM
 
SaberTJ

Your bringing up the #1 thing KG mentioned is the entire reason why I was terrified when I heard the trade. (I am a Clevelander - thus the extra interest in this article).

Any team in the Indians's revenue position has to develop cost controlled starting pitching. It is why the Rays have been so successful, and the Royals could be in trouble (because they could potentially have brought up their hitters too early)

I thought the Indians took an unnecessary risk when the trade was made. When they trade their starting pitching prospects they can't miss, or it will cost them several years of competitiveness. I think an alarm has to be going off when a competitive team in a weak division is willing to trade a former CY Young contender.

Just my 2 cents.

May 11, 2012 17:18 PM
rating: 1
 
Mike W
(830)

Interesting, in that your conclusions are very different from these:

http://www.hardballtimes.com/main/article/ubaldo-jimenez-and-his-missing-96-mph-heater-a-mechanical-look/

May 11, 2012 07:51 AM
rating: 1
 
SaberTJ

I can't speak for Doug. But the THT analysis doesn't break down why Ubaldo is having different arm action other than mentioning "In the Cleveland clip, he separates his pitching arm extremely early and leaves it to hang by his back pocket for four or five more frames than he did in Colorado. Look back at the full speed clip and see how the 2010 arm action is so much more athletic and smooth" Kyle Boddy notices a difference, but fails to explain why Ubaldo has been making this change.

I think Doug's article simply is much more thorough and better explains why Ubaldo isn't having the success he did back in 2010.

May 11, 2012 08:50 AM
rating: 2
 
BP staff member Doug Thorburn
BP staff

I happen to disagree with Kyle's assertion that Ubaldo's struggles have nothing to do with the front shoulder, especially given that the issues with early arm action are mostly harmful if they have the ripple effect of creating early rotation and "shoulder flying open."

In the GIF's from the article, Jimenez triggers trunk rotation earlier on the GIF on the right (with the funky arm action), with a lead-shoulder that opens up sooner. So I was very surprised to see Kyle claim that he had "busted the shoulder myth."

Of course this is just one man's opinion, and this stuff would not be much fun if we all agreed all the time. I will say that Kyle is the master of GIF synchonization - wow!

May 11, 2012 14:43 PM
 
BP staff member Doug Thorburn
BP staff

Kyle is awesome, and he does some great work. We often see similar things when looking at pitchers, however we don't always focus on the same aspects in our evaluations.

In this case, I had noticed both the early hand separation and the bizarre wrist-flick as the throwing arm reaches it's lowest point (in CLE), however I do not consider these to be glaring issues. To me the key is when he initiates trunk rotation, and though an early break of the hands can be a pre-cursor to early rotation, it does not have to be. The wrist-flick is Ubaldo's compensatory mechanism for the timing of hand-break, but he has manual control over when to trigger the shoulders - in other words, the early hand-break isn't causing him to do it so much as Ubaldo's choosing when to fire.

I apologize for not addressing this in the article, but I was up over 2000 words already and some things were left on the cutting room floor. I also noticed the extra "rock-n'roll" tilt of the shoulder line in CLE, but decided to omit that portion. A typical article of mine has about 10 pages worth of notes that do not make it into the final version, and Ubaldo had too many other things happening that I felt the need to address.

May 11, 2012 14:36 PM
 
SaberTJ

I think there needs to be a larger word limit on your articles. Edits should on be done for grammatical errors only. Keep the rest for the viewers :)

May 11, 2012 17:21 PM
rating: 3
 
kovenbros

Great article - I'll hope you'll do more of this type of analysis. I really like the YoY mechanics report - very interesting.

This is the first comment I've ever made in like 2-3 years of being a subscriber...

May 11, 2012 08:23 AM
rating: 3
 
BP staff member Doug Thorburn
BP staff

Thanks for the kind words. I have really enjoyed the time-travel comparisons with Ubaldo and Timmy, and I am honored to have invoked your first comment. I hope the hits keep on comin' - the first one's always the toughest!

May 11, 2012 14:48 PM
 
flyingpickle

Great stuff.

May 11, 2012 11:46 AM
rating: 1
 
kcarter80

I'm curious: does anyone have any idea if these sort of mechanical differences are common? Are they recoverable? If so, what time frame?

Trying to gauge how screwed the Tribe is.

May 11, 2012 12:27 PM
rating: 0
 
SaberTJ

Didn't Halladay go to the minors to totally rework his mechanics?

May 11, 2012 12:30 PM
rating: -1
 
crile2

I'd be very interested to see if Clay Buchholz has some sort of major mechanical issue like Ubaldo this year or if he's just 'lost it' so to speak.

May 11, 2012 12:37 PM
rating: 3
 
Matt

Keep these articles coming.

May 11, 2012 14:23 PM
rating: 2
 
SaberTJ

Doug - thanks for answering so many of these comments. They are truly enlightening. I look forward to Thursdays to read your newest insight.

May 11, 2012 17:02 PM
rating: 0
 
Leg4206

Like others here, I really enjoy the articles. Do pitchers who begin hip rotation prior to foot strike generally have more timing issues? Seems like waiting till foot strike to begin hip rotation would provide a physical cue to aid timing, while starting prior to foot strike would make timing initiation entirely dependent on the internal clock. Also, does the arm side lean in early stride hinder posture at release as the torso must ultimately compensate by moving to the glove side direction, increasing the likelihood of glove side lean later in the process.

May 11, 2012 21:34 PM
rating: 1
 
HonusCobb

So most importantly, should I wait for him to come around on my fantasy baseball team? Or should I see if he has any trade value?

May 13, 2012 04:24 AM
rating: 2
 
edwardarthur

I bet you'll be stuck with the former. If he still had the velocity but not the results, it would be easy to dream, but it's hard to imagine who's going to what to give up significant value for him now. Hold and keep your fingers crossed.

May 15, 2012 08:30 AM
rating: 0
 
bline24

I caught Ubaldo's game in Boston on Friday (not literally), and for what it's worth, I was struck by his physical presence on the mound but completely underwhelmed by his ability to translate that into a powerful delivery. In that game he was just as bad out of the windup as the stretch, he walked with a noticeable limp to and from the mound, and looked shaky when putting weight on his back leg. I would be surprised if leg strength/conditioning weren't a significant factor in his struggles.

May 15, 2012 10:42 AM
rating: 0
 
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