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September 10, 2013

Overthinking It

Is Ubaldo Back?

by Ben Lindbergh


Just over a month ago on Effectively Wild, Sam Miller and I surveyed the 2014 options that teams would have to decide to pick up or pass on at the end of this season. When we came to the Indians’ $8 mutual million option on Ubaldo Jimenez, we very nearly dismissed it without saying what it was.

Me: Ubaldo Jimenez.
Sam: Pass.
Me: You don’t even want to hear the amount?
Sam: Well, what is the amount?
Me: The amount is $8 million.
Sam: Given who’s a free agent starter this winter, it wouldn’t kill me if a team did that at all. I would pass, but it wouldn’t break my heart.

Barring injury, there’s probably never a time when we should dramatically alter our opinion of a position player based on a sample as small as Ubaldo’s post-podcast performance. But with pitchers, sometimes a little over a month makes a major difference. Jimenez has made six starts since Sam and I discussed him. In those six starts (and 38 innings), he’s allowed 10 runs, eight of them earned (1.89 ERA). His BABIP over that stretch is .304, so he hasn’t benefited from luck on balls in play. He’s simply pitched well, giving up only one homer, getting groundballs on almost half of his balls in play, and recording 47 strikeouts against 13 walks. Since the beginning of August, his zone and strike rates are up a couple percentage points, and his whiff rate is up 25 percent. Two of his last three starts—including his scoreless seven-inning outing against Kansas City on Monday night—have been 10-strikeout, no-walk performances, the only two such starts he’s ever made.

Today, Ubaldo’s option looks like almost as big a bargain as Ben Zobrist’s. Such a big bargain, in fact, that it doesn’t make sense for him to exercise it. Granted, teams would (and should) be wary of Jimenez, who was awful for the Indians in 2011 and 2012. But say he were to extend his string of excellent outings over his final few starts. In that scenario, it wouldn’t be unrealistic to think that he could decline the option, hit the open market, and either command a multi-year deal or get twice what the option would have paid him him for a single season.

The truth is that Sam and I were sort of slow on the uptake. Between Ubaldo’s disastrous, seven-run second and third starts of the season and his outing just prior to the podcast, he’d recorded a 3.36 ERA over 104 1/3 innings, striking out almost a batter per inning (albeit with iffy control). But having seen him struggle so mightily since coming to Cleveland, we weren’t willing to adjust our expectations based on anything short of a complete return to form.

If you squint, what’s what this recent run looks like. It’s not just that Jimenez’s results have improved; his stuff has also bounced back. The righty’s average four-seamer velocity has ticked up about two miles per hour since June.

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Related Content:  Cleveland Indians,  Ubaldo Jimenez,  Mechanics

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