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Not long ago, on Effectively Wild, we were asked a hypothetical question about two pitchers. One produces A.J. Burnett’s average season, every time, with no fluctuation. The other is realistic: he produces good years, bad years, great years, lost years, average years. In an absolute sense, the pitchers are equal and have the same expected value, but would a GM tend to pay more for the volatile one or the certainty?
In 2014, PECOTA expects Ubaldo Jimenez to produce a 3.73 ERA in 171 innings, good for 2.1 WARP. It expects Matt Garza to produce a 3.66 ERA and 2.0 WARP in 164 innings. In other words, they’re practically identical in quality and in quantity, overall. They were born two months apart, they are both right-handed. Yet perhaps no pitcher in baseball portends more fluctuation than Jimenez, and no pitcher in baseball has been more consistent than Garza, about whom we recently wrote: “He has never had an ERA over 3.95; he has only once in those seven years dropped below 3.69.”
And so, we have our answer, right? Garza got four years and $50 million, and while under the intoxicating effects of a vacation reportedly turned down the Angels’ take-it-or-leave-it offer of four and $52. Ubaldo, cutting it close to the start of the season, has now signed for four years and $50 million. Given the value of the compensation draft pick the Orioles forfeited to sign him, they paid ever so slightly more for Jimenez than the Brewers and Angels offered for Garza, which fits—PECOTA favors Jimenez ever so slightly over Garza. The answer to the question: Fluctuation doesn’t matter.
And boy oh boy will Ubaldo fluctuate. This tweet is less than 11 months old:
Ubaldo's velo down so bad that Gameday has him throwing 15 changeups in the first inning. At least half were fastballs.
Here’s what I wrote in my notes from that game: “Very jerky. Bad balance. Way open. Slightly calmer in the stretch, but loses velocity. Not much movement on fastball. Missing up/down, not left/right. Differential between fastball/splitter makes it hard to say what many (84, 85) even were. Splitter is up and in the zone. (By third inning) has almost totally abandoned fastball. Command deteriorating, definitely worse than in the first. Occasionally loses balance completely.”
He finished April with baseball’s 13th-worst ERA and 21st-worst K:BB ratio. In the next five months, he allowed more than three earned runs in a game twice.
When I wrote this week about Homer Bailey’s apparently imminent extension, I argued that pitchers can recreate themselves so dramatically (with health, repertoire, mechanics, approach) that it’s hard to find the balance weighing what they are with what they’ve been. What makes Jimenez interesting is that his fluctuation is the most consistent thing about him. And even now that he seems to have figured something out, he has done so in a way that makes him inherently unreliable. Ben Lindbergh and Doug Thorburn noted late last year that Jimenez had made mechanical fixes that were producing more velocity,
but that the mechanical fixes were themselves complicated and challenging to repeat. His release point remains all over the place, a baseball-specific application of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle*. As Ben put it,
This is the Apollo 13 approach to pitching mechanics. An oxygen tank blew up, and the Service Module has to be abandoned? Okay, we’ll use the Lunar Module as a lifeboat. The square Service Module carbon dioxide scrubber cartridges don’t fit the round receptacle in the Lunar Module? Fine, we’ll build a makeshift scrubber out of tape, cardboard, and a plastic bag. It will work for a while, but not forever, and there’s still a hole in the side of the Service Module. Jimenez has found a way to compensate for his suspect mechanics. But because he hasn’t addressed his delivery’s deeper flaws, this might be more of a temporary fix than a lasting solution.
(There is, by the way, an emerging meme that says Ubaldo's good streak was confined to a dozen starts against poor opponents late in the season. Here's an example:
Last year, prior to his hot finish, Jimenez was 7-5 with a 4.49 ERA and 1.50 WHIP through 20 starts. So, essentially, what we're looking at with Jimenez is a pitcher who was … great for 12 starts to finish the 2013 season.
In most any field, you can think about equivalents to Ubaldo. He’s the Lou Reed of baseball. He’s the Nicolas Cage of baseball. The Lyndon Johnson of baseball. High highs, low lows, and the uncontrolled ambitions that make the one possibility contribute unavoidably to the other. How we judge these fluctuators ultimately comes down to the stakes: Are the benefits of an above-average performance greater than the cost of his crater?
The cost of fluctuation, fittingly, fluctuates. For a competitive team that has no starting pitching depth, like the Giants or Angels last year, the stability might be best. Likewise for a team that has true aces who will fill the two-start spots in a playoff rotation. But consider the Orioles: They have about one 1 in 20 shot at making the playoffs. If they add Jimenez and he has one of his off years, well, there was already about a 95 percent chance that it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. They need a lot of things to go right, more right than we’re predicting. Adding Garza’s certain two wins doesn’t move the needle. Adding Jimenez and his possibility of six is a start.
For an underdog, there’s might be no better hope than gambling on upside. This is a gamble, and, as Jimenez showed in the final five months of last season, there is upside.
*Don’t know if this is right —Sam Miller
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