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The Pittsburgh Dispatch in 1891 wrote, “inconsistency among baseball … is as natural as sunlight.”

Inconsistency has been a baseball buzzword for over a century. A newspaper in Ogden City, Utah, in November 1916 marveled over “the inconsistencies of baseball” and how Ty Cobb won the batting title in 1915 despite only collecting a single four-hit game, yet compiled seven four-hit games a year later without winning the batting title.*

[*Cobb actually hit .371 in 1916, which was a better mark than his .369 batting average the previous season.]

Roughly 100 years later, we’re still talking about the inconsistency of baseball, only now we tend to call it randomness. We obsess about year-to-year fluctuations in BABIP and we attempt to devise (brilliant) pitching statistics like DRA that account for that inconsistency or what we consider “outside the pitcher’s control.”

In many ways, we’re talking about the same things baseball fans discussed and wrote about long ago. Perhaps we’re better at isolating or explaining the inconsistencies of baseball than we were during the First World War, but we still struggle to predict when marginal pitchers will dominate over a string of five-to-ten starts or when someone like Chris Shelton will shock the world with 10 home runs in the first month of the season.

It’s part of the appeal of baseball, I think. Many people have embraced baseball because it has a rich statistical culture; however, baseball’s fascination with statistics is couched in an admission that it cannot be entirely captured by numbers. So much of our modern life is rigid and ordered—Max Weber called it the iron cage of Western society—that we gravitate toward something beautiful and inherently unpredictable like baseball.

*****

Just over a year ago in February 2014, right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez inked a four-year, $48 million contract with the Baltimore Orioles after a three-win season with the Indians. He compiled a 3.30 ERA over 182 2/3 innings and won 13 games with Cleveland in 2013, re-establishing his value after a disaster of a campaign the year prior.

Unfortunately, the Orioles didn’t get the number-three starter for which they hoped (and paid). He struggled to find the strike zone over the course of the season, posting a 5.53 BB/9 (13.9 percent) walk rate and a 4.81 ERA. Even his 4.67 FIP suggested his core performance was far below average. Hell, Jimenez pitched so poorly a year ago that he entered spring training this year without a guaranteed spot in the rotation. It took a lights-out Grapefruit League to bump Kevin Gausman to the bullpen, but one can certainly say he’s made the most of it.

Through his first four starts of the 2015 campaign, Jimenez has been utterly brilliant. He currently owns a 1.59 ERA, his strikeout rate has bumped up from 21.0 percent to 26.2 percent, and his walk rate has gotten more under control at 9.5 percent. All in all, the right-hander entered Sunday’s games as the 23rd-overall starter in ESPN leagues, which isn’t bad considering he was, on average, the 159th starting pitcher drafted. In other words, he was on the waiver wire in almost every conceivable league, even deeper mixed dynasty formats.

It’s not a controversial statement to say that Ubaldo Jimenez has been very good this year. That’s not why he has under a 70-percent ownership rate on ESPN, despite being a top-30 starter. The issue is that Jimenez has been the poster-child for inconsistency the past half-decade or so. He’s bounced from brilliant to horrid and back again numerous times.

Year

ERA

FIP

2010

2.88

3.10

2011

4.68

3.67

2012

5.40

5.06

2013

3.30

3.43

2014

4.81

4.67

2015

1.59

3.54

Outside of some quick-and-dirty argument like “this must be one of his good years,” it’s tough to put any real faith in Ubaldo’s hot start to the season. After all, he had a streak of 12 games in May and June last year in which he posted a 3.41 ERA with 63 strikeouts in 68.2 innings and appeared serviceable. He followed that up with a brutal 6.44 ERA throughout the remainder of the year and shouldn’t have been on any fantasy rosters by September.

Still, it should be noted that Jimenez has showed some very different tendencies in April — some things that should be fairly acknowledged.

Perhaps the most obvious development for the 31-year-old hurler is that his 67.3 percent ground-ball rate is the best in all of baseball. And this is coming from a guy who has traditionally been roughly league-average, if not a little worse as of late, in his ground-ball rates. The extreme uptick has stemmed from a dramatic increase in his sinker usage.

Year

Four-seam

Sinker

2010

29.64%

32.04%

2011

29.43%

33.35%

2012

30.73%

27.15%

2013

21.51%

30.87%

2014

18.47%

40.24%

2015

13.37%

53.20%

All of this comes with the context that Ubaldo has been losing velocity for years. He averaged 96.77 mph on his sinker in 2010, and that has decreased to merely 90.56 mph this year. He has lost velocity in each of the past five seasons. Is this merely a pitcher who is adjusting to “worse” stuff on the mound? He has seemingly eschewed his offspeed stuff for more sinkers, becoming a ground-ball specialist of sorts. His 66.57 percent fastball usage is almost eight-percent higher than last year and his highest total, by far, since 2008.

That extreme ground-ball rate perhaps explains, in part, the minuscule .157 BABIP. However, one wonders how he’s doing all this—and posting a solid strikeout rate—despite a measly 6.1 percent swinging-strike rate and a 22.0 O-Swing%, which is fifth-worst in baseball. That does seem to suggest his stuff has declined dramatically and it’s just a matter of time before guys start squaring stuff up in the zone.

The problem with that reasoning, though, relates to why his swinging-strike and O-Swing numbers are dramatically down. It’s not necessarily that he’s not getting guys to swing-and-miss or swing at poor pitches. It’s more that opposing hitters are simply not swinging at all.

#

Player

Swing%

1

Ubaldo Jimenez

34.8%

2

James Paxton

41.0%

2

Alex Wood

41.0%

4

Aaron Sanchez

41.5%

4

Dan Haren

41.5%

4

Dallas Keuchel

41.5%

Ubaldo Jimenez’s opponent swing percentage is almost 12 points lower than the league average (46.5 percent). Given his command issues in the past, especially last year, it seems that opposing teams have new scouting report that says “Don’t Swing.”

That’s all well and good based on past performance, but Ubaldo is actually throwing strikes this year. His Zone% has increased from 42.0 percent a year ago to 48.3 percent in 2015. That has allowed him to work ahead more often than he has in recent years. In fact, the last time he had a first-pitch strike percentage this high was in 2013, which was one of his good years.

Of course, the right-hander was also working with superior stuff in 2013. His velocity was higher, his swinging-strike rate was up to 8.8 percent, and he had one of the better sliders of his career that year. Just because he’s getting ahead of hitters at a similar clip as he did in 2013 doesn’t mean the equivalent results will follow—both due to randomness, such as BABIP and strand rate, and to decreased stuff.

What this does signal, though, is that Ubaldo isn’t just getting lucky. His BABIP won’t remain south of .200 for much longer, and his 80.3 percent strand rate seems likely to regress somewhere near his 71.6 percent career average, but he has paired his luck with legitimate improvements to his approach and command.

The question boils down to whether this new extreme ground-ball, decent-command, no-swing approach is going to stick throughout the remainder of the year. Given his extreme inconsistencies from month-to-month, not to mention year-to-year, it seems like one would be bargaining with the devil to acquire such a volatile asset. That is to say, Ubaldo’s new ground-ball-heavy approach needs to show some staying power before I consider it here to stay. Until then, I can’t help but write this off to the inherent inconsistency that comes with the territory for Ubaldo Jimenez.

BUYER’S ADVICE: HOLD

This advice is for leagues in which Ubaldo has not already been claimed on the waiver wire. For those leagues in which he’s freely available, perhaps it is worth taking a shot in the dark, hoping that he can catch lightning in a bottle for a season, much like he did a couple years ago. In deeper leagues where he’s already rostered, though, I think it’s best to stay the course. He won’t have massive trade value due to his tumultuous past — so he won’t be worth selling in any meaningful sense—and his inconsistent track record characterizes him as a trade target (likely) made of nothing more than pyrite.

—–

Sources:

Pittsburgh Dispatch. (Pittsburgh, PA), 23 Aug 1891, page 18.

The Ogden Standard (Ogden City, Utah), 18 Nov 1916, page 2.

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