Ubaldo Jimenez’s enigmatic season

(Previous articles on Ubaldo Jimenez: His missing 96 MPH heater, A quick mechanics review, Perception vs. Reality)

Ubaldo Jimenez has had quite the up and down season in 2013 after a lackluster 2012. Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports wrote an excellent article on him, calling it a purely fundamental renaissance.

What changed?

When he arrived at spring training this season, Jimenez readied himself for punishment. He felt like he threw 400 innings in 2012 from all the extra work he put in to find his delivery, and he was willing to do the same. Only (pitching coach Mickey) Callaway didn’t want him to. Jimenez needed to focus on four vital fundamentals, the first of which was simple: tempo.

This was certainly evident in his first start of the year, where his tempo was horrible to the plate and he was pushing 84 mph fastballs to Carlos Santana.

As any Indians fan can tell you, Jimenez has been a completely different pitcher down the stretch, posting a 1.83 ERA since the All-Star break. While his average velocity hasn’t picked up that much down the stretch, his peak velocity has been significantly better—hitting 95-97 mph when he needs it. This is a stark difference from earlier in the season, where the fastball velocity variance was much more tightly grouped (source: Fangraphs):

Ubaldo Velocity Chart

There are other mitigating factors, of course. The Indians have played an extremely soft second-half schedule, with Jimenez pitching against the following teams in order since July: Kansas City, Toronto, Kansas City, Seattle, Texas, Miami, Anaheim, Oakland, Minnesota, Atlanta, Baltimore, Kansas City, Chicago (AL), Houston.

One thing is clear: His effectiveness has always waxed and waned with his peak (and average) fastball velocity over the years. When Jimenez is unable to uncork a high-90s heater, he struggles to get outs. It’s as simple as that: It’s not location or secondary pitches, it’s pure velocity.

Regardless of what traditional pitching coaches and armchair fans will tell you, fastball velocity is incredibly meaningful. And Indians fans should know. The resurgence of Scott Kazmir should prove that. Told in the 2012-2013 offseason (for him, the whole year) that he should “learn to spot up at 86-88 mph and be a lefty specialist,” Kazmir rejected this idea and regained his velocity by careful video analysis of his pitching mechanics and grueling workouts. (Detailed in my THT article: How Scott Kazmir got his groove back)

So there’s not much surprise that Jimenez’s uptick in velocity has also improved his rate statistics. Let’s look at how he did it.

Comparing the old with the new

Ubaldo old vs. new
(These GIFs are five frames per second slower than recorded video/reality due to encoding.)

Pitching coach Mickey Callaway’s advice is immediately obvious: Jimenez’s tempo has vastly improved in the clip from Sept. 19. One thing stuck out to me, however, and that was how his arm action starts and how rotation is initiated:


In my May 2012 article on his mechanics, I noted:

In the Cleveland clip, he separates his pitching arm extremely early and leaves it to hang by his back pocket for four or five more frames than he did in Colorado. Look back at the full speed clip and see how the 2010 arm action is so much more athletic and smooth. The difference is honestly staggering—you almost never see a change this massive in such a short period of time.

You can see it again in this clip:

Ubaldo 2010 vs 2012

You can see in the late 2013 (96 mph) vs. early 2013 (84 mph) mechanics the later deployment of the pitching arm, the greater shoulder abduction (so-called “scapular loading”), and most importantly, the better use of the glove side arm. Instead of sticking it out early and attempting to rotate against it, he allows it to smoothly extend and rotate in a more or less unified fashion. This keeps angular rotational velocity of the torso up which is the greatest single contributor to fastball velocity.

Commenters and other in the past talked about Jimenez’s front shoulder being used as leverage. Pitching coaches who believe that the glove side controls everything talked about how he tries to lever himself against his front shoulder, but commenter Drew Osborne nailed it right on the head:

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

But another thing I noticed was how his front arm got higher. These two things work hand in hand. He’s trying to reach back but what it’s causing is a loss of momentum. He is wasting energy up and down rather than saving energy to put into his delivery.

It isn’t the glove arm that is causing the disconnection but rather than pitching arm! In Passan’s article, he said as much:

In order to generate greater arm speed, Jimenez had tried to cheat biomechanics by leaning his right shoulder back to load his scapula and create greater leverage.

Other improvements to be had

Jimenez’s peak velocity is returning to form, but he still has 100+ mph velocity in his delivery if he can iron out the final piece—reducing lateral tilt in an attempt to “reach back.” Look at the Colorado clip above and notice how athletic he is, how efficiently the upper body translates toward the plate. There is a major disconnection in his current pitching mechanics that I’m sure he is trying to iron out. After he fixes that, you’ll see 98-99 mph fastballs being rolled in.

The final piece is repeating that and bringing his average fastball velocity back up over 96-97 mph as it was in Colorado. And if that happens in 2014, I think you’ll find that the team that signs him will have quite the pleasant surprise on its hands.

Kyle owns Driveline Baseball and Driveline Biomechanics Research, and has authored The Dynamic Pitcher, a comprehensive book and video set dedicated to developing elite youth baseball pitchers. He is also a consultant for an MLB team and a major Division-I college program. Follow him on Twitter @drivelinebases or email him here.

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