A look at Ubaldo Jimenez

Ubaldo Jimenez is the straw that stirs the drink. Or at least he has been in the past few days, being the subject of frequent discussion. The Rockies are apparently considering trading Jimenez, with the Yankees being named as the most likely suitor. Should the Rockies deal Jimenez, they would be losing a very effective and very unique pitcher. In the past four years, Jimenez has never been worse than 17 percent above average in terms of FIP. Although his performance is certainly notable on its own merits, Jimenez gets more attention for his unusual pitching repertoire. And rightly so.

Jimenez legitimately throws six pitches, maybe even seven. On an given day he throws a four-seam, two-seam, changeup, slider, curveball, and splitter. There are even reports of him mixing in a cutter. Combined with a bizarre pitching motion and elite velocity, he is somewhat of a pitching spectacle. You can examine his 2011 repertoire graphically below:

image

It’s important to keep in mind that this is movement compared to a ball thrown without spin. The circles are centered at the respective means of each pitch. All classifications were done manually in the interest of accuracy. Gameday classifications had a lot of trouble with splitters; there were many situations where four-seams in 0-0 counts were classified as splitters, and other silly things like that. There was also one game of his in my database with terrible data, and you can see that in the small cluster of fastballs around (-1,-5). I did not classify any cutters as I was not comfortable with my ability to identify the pitch.

As you can see, Jimenez has quite the spread of pitches. This is what his repertoire looks like to a left-handed batter:

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I had to eyeball the perspective, which is why it looks a little strange. I also apologize about not having the same colors in each of these two graphs, but that’s an artifact of using two different plotting packages.

Ubaldo’s rollercoaster season

Fresh off a career best 6.3 fWAR season in 2010, Jimenez looked like a different pitcher in the first two months of the 2011 season. With a few miles per hour missing and his command wavering, he predictably struggled, posting repuslive ERA’s and merely unattractive xFIPs. In months since he’s been much better, posting excellent marks in both traditional and advanced pitching metrics. Particularly of note is the huge drop in his walk rate, implying that his command has improved.

Ostensibly inconsistent, Jimenez has drawn comparisons to A.J. Burnett, which Dave Cameron addressed at Fangraphs. The comparison is kind of cheap. People see a pitcher with really good stuff struggle, and up come the accusations of mental instability and inconsistency. My personal theory is that this can be explained with a psychological principle called cognitive dissonance. The basic idea is having two conflicting thoughts in the mind at the same time causes an uncomfortable mental tension, which we then deal with through rationalizations and justifications in an attempt to re-align reality with our mental attitude.

In the case of Jimenez and Burnett, the two conflicting thoughts are clear. These are pitchers with nasty stuff, electric stuff—stuff that scouts salivate over. Then they struggle. They struggle, but they still have amazing stuff. But that doesn’t make sense of course, pitchers with good stuff pitch well right? Of course they do, that’s backed up by more than a century of baseball!

In this manner the mental tension is clear. This is then dealt with rationalizations like mental instability and inconsistency that are only applied to pitchers with good stuff. When pitchers without good stuff struggle, it’s rarely a matter of questioning consistency or mental fortitude.

But I digress. Jimenez started the season very badly, and now is pitching very well. Often times changes in performance in small samples are dismissed due to the assumption that much of player performance is random. While I generally agree with such a doctrine, Jimenez provides an example where he has clearly changed his approach. Here is the difference in his pitch selection to open at-bats between the two halfs of his season:

image

As you can see, in 0-0 counts Jimenez has begun to pitch backwards more often, throwing four-seams about 11 percent less, with a corresponding increase in breaking balls. It seems that with a diminished fastball and unsatisfactory results, Ubaldo went to the soft stuff more often to open at-bats. It’s also very possible that this is simply correlation and not causation, and that there is a different reason for his performance change. Indeed, this is not a trend that we see in all counts:

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*Graph was made using code provided by James Keirstead in this R-bloggers post.

FF= four-seam, FT = two-seam, CH = changeup, FS = splitter, CU = curveball, SL = slider. This is a slopegraph displaying the usage of each pitch in each month. As you can see, overall his fastball usage was pretty consistent. I also would not pay attention to the increase in FT percentage, as that may be an artifact of my classifications as I did not feel very good about distinguishing between FF and FT.

References & Resources
*PITCHf/x data from MLBAM through Darrel Zimmerman’s pbp2 database and scripts by Joseph Adler/Mike Fast/Darrel Zimmerman.
*James Keirstead’s code on Github.
*Fangraphs

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Comments

  1. Tom Wilson said...

    The 5.52 Fip that Ubaldo posted in April was his first 4.5FIP month since his April/May of his rookie season in 08.

    I think we can certainly consider April an outlier not to be thrown out but rather knowing what we know about his injuries in that month we can understand it.

    In 22 months of pitching since 2008 his first full season in MLB Jimenez has 6 months of 3 or lower FIP, 13 months of 3.5FIP or lower, 16 Months of sub 4FIP, and 20 months of sub 4.5FIP pitching. That covers a lot of what Jimenez brings to the table but does not necessarily capture his true talent level.

    It seems interesting that we spend so much time thinking about the bump hitters get playing at altitude, and pay some lip service to the difficulty of pitching their without ever investigating the challenges a player would face having to readjust their game week to week.

    Ubaldo Jimenez and Jhoulys Chacin are the only two pitchers in Rockies team history to post a sub 3.5 ERA in 125 innings pitched, and Ubaldo has done it twice. No pitcher before had ever completed back to back seasons of 200+ innings at altitude and Jimenez missed making it three in a row by 1.2 innings in 2008.

    Whether Ubaldo Jimenez is a top ten pitcher in baseball is up for argument but ignoring the fact that since 2008 his road 3.15FIP is tied with Felix Hernandez for 5th in MLB behind only Lincecum 2.85, Halladay 2.94, and Lee 3.09 would be a silly thing for anyone trying to evaluate Jimenez’s value to ignore.

  2. Alan Nathan said...

    Some comments/questions:

    1.  One suggestion for the first plot (horizontal and vertical movement) is to make separate plots for home and away.  I suspect you would see tighter clusters if you do that.  The reason is that one expects significantly less movement (~20%) at Coors due to the altitude.

    2.  The cluster near (-1,-5) seems to have multiple classifications.  Do you really think that is the case?  What extra information are you using to come up with those classifications?—ok, never mind, I see that you said it comes from bad data.

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