ANAHEIM – The once-packed ballroom at the Anaheim Marriott had all but emptied. Yet Ubaldo Jimenez remained in the back of the room and held court with a half-dozen reporters after the press conference announcing the starting lineups for tonight's All-Star Game.
It seems everyone want to hear Jimenez's story these days. The tale of the Rockies' right-hander emerging from a good young pitcher into an international sensation in this supposed "Year of the Pitcher" has certainly captured the imagination of many.
Jimenez is 15-1 this season, the first major-leaguer to win 15 games by the All-Star break since David Wells in 2000. While those with the basic knowledge of statistical analysis realize that wins do not tell the full story of a pitcher's success, Jimenez scores well in the more advanced metrics, though he is not quite as dominant as his record would indicate.
Jimenez is third in the majors with 5.2 SNLVAR, trailing the Phillies' Roy Halladay (5.6) and the Marlins' Josh Johnson (5.5), and is second among pitchers who have qualified for the ERA title with a .679 SNWP, trailing only Johnson (.703). Jimenez also reinforces the old cliché that sometimes it's better to be lucky—or LUCKy—than good, as his 6.48 LUCK leads the National League and is third in the majors behind Yankees rotation mates Phil Hughes (7.40) and CC Sabathia (6.53).
So while the advanced metrics make the case that Johnson is probably more deserving of starting for the NL in tonight's All-Star Game at Angel Stadium against David Price of the Rays, NL manager Charlie Manuel chose Jimenez over the Marlins' right-hander and also Halladay, the ace of his Phillies staff. The All-Star Game is just as much about good stories at the traditional midpoint of the season than the playing of the game on the field. Thus, Manuel wasn't apologizing for going with the better story, which is Jimenez, as Johnson's brilliance gets lost in the baseball hinterlands of South Florida and Halladay was already the story of last year's All-Star Game at St. Louis with two days of non-stop speculation about what team would acquire him from the Blue Jays in a trade.
"I think one of the biggest things that went into my decision was that we have some real talented pitchers on the National League squad, but this guy is 15-1," Manuel said. "His record speaks for itself. He threw a no-hitter and he's completed three ballgames. He's what I call a horse, and so is Josh Johnson. It was a tough pick, but he's the guy I chose because ever since he's been to the big leagues, he's been pitching in the series we play the Rockies. He's definitely stood out and he was my favorite pick."
Jimenez has been building to this point since coming to the major leagues in 2006. He had a career-high 6.6 WARP last season and is already at 5.5 WARP this year. He is just the second pitcher from the Dominican Republic ever to start an All-Star Game, joining Pedro Martinez. Even Juan Marichal, the only Dominican pitcher to be elected to the Hall of Fame, never started a Midsummer Classic. Ironically, it was a conversation with Marichal last winter that Jimenez says helped him have such a good first half this season.
"He told me I should trust my fastball and throw it more often, especially for strike one to start off hitters," Jimenez said. "It's made a big difference. I really feel like I'm commanding my fastball better than I ever have before, and that is setting up my curveball and my split-finger, making them better."
Jimenez will face an AL lineup consisting of: Mariners right fielder Ichiro Suzuki (.293 TAv), Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter (.263), Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera (.353), Rangers center fielder Josh Hamilton (.330), Rangers designated hitter Vladimir Guerrero (.303), Rays third baseman Evan Longoria (.315), Twins catcher Joe Mauer (.288), Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano (.316), and Rays left fielder Carl Crawford (.317).
AL manager Joe Girardi of the Yankees also went with wins in deciding his starter, as Price is tied with Sabathia for the league lead with 12. However, Price is sixth in the league and just second on his pitching staff in SNLVAR with 3.6, trailing the Mariners' Felix Hernandez (4.6), the Red Sox' Jon Lester (4.1), the Rays' Jeff Niemann (3.8), Sabathia (3.8), and the Yankees' Andy Pettitte (3.7).
"David's numbers speak for themselves," Girardi said. "He was the top starting pitcher among the player voting. He is also right on schedule because he last pitched last Wednesday. I think he's very deserving of this honor."
Price might not be the most deserving AL pitcher to get the start. However, there is little doubt that he is emerging as a frontline starter in his first full major-league season and living up to the hype that surrounded him as the first overall pick out of Vanderbilt in the 2007 amateur draft.
"It takes a while to get your feet wet at the big-league level," Price said. "You have to have some success and you have to have some failure, and you have to be able to learn from both of them. And that's what I feel like I did last year and that's how I feel this year. No matter who I take the mound against or who's in the box, it's me against them. That's the attitude I've taken this year and I feel like I've been consistent for the most part. I feel like that's the definition of a good pitcher—being consistent."
The NL batting order against Price will be Marlins shortstop Hanley Ramirez (.304 TAv), Braves second baseman Martin Prado (.301), Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols (.332), Phillies first baseman (who will play as designated hitter) Ryan Howard (.294), Mets third baseman David Wright (.325), Brewers left fielder Ryan Braun (.300), Dodgers center fielder Andre Ethier (.327), Brewers right fielder Corey Hart (.314), and Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina (.222).
That lineup will try to break the NL's 12-game losing streak that dates to 1996. The 2002 game ended in a tie.
"If you play in the game, you want to win," Molina said. "I never look at a streak or anything, but I want to win the game. I'm sure everybody wants to win the game. You don't become an All-Star if you are not a competitive player if you don't care about winning."