When we meet Jim, he is hanging upside down staring at a new sheriff, Bart. He is a man in crisis, living in a town in crisis. Jim’s the town drunk of Rock Ridge. Rock Ridge is town under siege. Quicksand has rerouted the railroad right through the center of town. The evil Hedley Lamar has decided to terrorize the town as part of a land-snatching scheme. When Bart asks if he needs any help, Jim responds, “All I can get.”
Jim and Bart are fast friends, and Jim tells the new sheriff his secret. Jim was the Waco Kid, fastest gun in the world. Bart is understandably skeptical. So, Jim provides a demonstration. He stands a few feet from a chessboard. Tells Bart to put his hands on both sides of a king. Then Jim snatches the king before Bart can clasp the piece between his hands. Jim also shows the depth of his decline. He presents Bart his right hand, steady as a rock. Then up comes his shooting hand, a fish on dry land.
Bart asks his friend what happened. Jim’s tail is a simple one. He cracked under the pressure of being the fastest draw. With that title comes the constant demand to prove it. The pressure breaks the Waco kid, when he nearly guns down a child and is promptly shot in the rump by the youngster. Wounded in brain and bum, Jim climbs inside a bottle. And now, here he is, a broken man of diminished skills, telling his tale to his friend.
We find Ubaldo Jimenez, as Bart found Jim, a man in crisis. Jimenez had a 5.40 ERA and led the majors in losses (17) last year. And this wasn't bad luck, this was terrible pitching. A high BABIP (batting average of balls in play) is the standard sign of bad luck. Jimenez’s BABIP was an average .309. While batted balls weren’t falling with unusual frequency, Ubaldo was missing the strike zone at an alarming rate. Ubaldo walked the third most batters in MLB (95). Further, the quality of Ubaldo’s pitches are in a free fall. The velocity on his average fastball dramatically dropped 3.6 mph in the last 2 years. Jimenez’s mechanics were a mess last year, the equivalent to drunk Jim’s shooting hand.
But Ubaldo also has a tale to tell. Once upon a time, Ubaldo was the Waco kid. From 2008 through 2010, Ubaldo had the fastest average heater in baseball. In those years, his highest ERA was 3.99 and lowest was 2.88. Ubaldo averaged roughly 195 strikeouts per year. He won as many as 19 games in a season. All the while, he was pitching in Colorado, the most notoriously brutal place for pitchers.
[The paths forward]
So, what does the future hold for Ubaldo? Right now, we can see Jimenez as Jim hanging upside down in a jail cell. But Jim’s fate didn't have to turn out as it did. Mel Brooks could have taken the movie in a different direction. We can imagine Blazing Saddles with alternative storylines. By exploring alternative storylines I think we can begin to see how Ubaldo’s future might unfold.
Storyline #1: Imagine that Bart never came to Rock Ridge. Without the help of his friend, Jim would remain a broken man. He needed a friend to climb outside the bottle, and without it he was bound to stay there. Likely, he would have kept up his self-destruction until he succeeded.
Ubaldo could share this sad storyline. He simply needs to keep on the path that he has been going. Down this path, the change in managers, pitching coaches, and off season work make no impact. Ubaldo never regains the velocity on pitches nor regains command on control. Constant tinkering with his mechanics only makes the problems worse. He manages to pitch worse than last year, and finds himself in the bullpen by the end. This is the path to an early retirement.
Storyline #2: This storyline is how I interpret the actual movie. Bart’s friendship helps Jim recover but not return to his former self. Jim is Jim and not the Waco Kid at the end of Blazing Saddles. He is Bart’s sidekick and not a stand-alone gunslinger. A talented gunmen, for sure, but Jim is no longer the fastest draw in the world. Nevertheless, this movie has a happy ending. Bart, Jim and the townspeople save Rock Ridge. Bart and Jim ride off into the sunset.
For Ubaldo to join this storyline, he needs to regain his control but not his velocity. Ubaldo's Bart may be off season work, Mickey Callaway, or whatever keys him into regaining command and control. You simply can’t be an effective pitcher with high walk rates and low strikeout rates. Often lost in discussing Jimenez’s struggles is that he still throws plenty hard (low to mid-90s). Down this path, he can no longer fall behind in a count and get out by blowing the batter away with his heater. He is going to have to get groundouts to work out jams instead of strikeouts. He is no longer the Waco Kid able to fight alone. He’ll need to keep himself out of jams by lowering the walk rate and rely on his defense when in a jam.
Even if his days as a true number one are gone, there is plenty of value in being a solid number two or three. And the stuff to be a number two/three pitcher is still there. Ubaldo is still only 29 yrs. old. If he regains command and control, he could pitch several more years even with further gradual lose of velocity. This storyline still has a happy ending.
Storyline #3: No doubt, some must think that this is the correct interpretation of the Blazing Saddles. We could call this storyline the return of the Waco Kid. Down this path, Bart’s friendship resolves Jim’s problems, and Jim is the fastest gun in the world again. He’s the stand-alone gunfighter that needs no one, because he is the best. In support of this interpretation, we see the Kidd shoot seven men in the hand, faster than the eye can see. Is he the fastest gun in the world? You could certainly make that argument. This storyline ends not only with a ride off into the sunset but a ride into the history books.
Of course, we know what this means for Ubaldo, a return to 2010. He regains both his velocity and his command and control. Everyone says that there is nothing physically wrong with Jimenez. In theory, the only difference between Ubaldo ’10 and Ubaldo ’12 is mechanics. Fix the mechanics and the ace returns. Down this path, Ubaldo becomes a regular part of every Cy Young conversation. He’s a pitcher that can touch 100 mph when he needs it. He’s a pitcher than can use the strikeout to get out of any jam. This storyline has Ubaldo riding into retirement with a mantle full of awards and a bank account able to care for generations.
[Outlook for ‘13]
What storyline will Ubaldo’s tale take? Well, consider the two biggest differences between Ubaldo in his Waco Kid days and Ubaldo in his drunk Jim days: pitch velocity and pitch selection.
Let’s take each in turn starting with velocity. Can Jimenez regain the velocity on his pitches?
To answer this question, I asked another question. When a pitcher loses velocity on his pitches does it ever comeback?
I faced several hurdles to answering this question. First, Fangraphs only starts tracking pitcher velocity in 2002, and Fangraph is my data pool for questions like this. So, my data pool was only over the last 11 years. Second, there is the complication of the steroid era. Roger Clemens famously regained velocity after leaving Boston. But we will never know the impact of steroids in his rebound. Baseball continues to make strides in policing PEDs. But the further back in the past we go, the more compromised the data. Third, I doubt the loss of velocity effects all pitchers the same. The soft tossers rely primarily on deception and movement. For example, I highly doubt that Jamie Moyer’s velocity gains or losses provide any useful information for Ubaldo Jimenez.
I looked at around 50 pitchers, focusing on guys with heat. One pitcher, Javier Vazquez had a substantial velocity drop and substantial regain. Starting in ’07 and thru ’10, Valquez lost 3.1 mph on his average fastball. The biggest drop was from ’09 to ’10, when he lost 2.4 mph. After ’10, Javier was able regain 1.7 mph in ’11. Further, Valquez pitched all of ’10 and ‘11. So, the velocity drop cannot be result of major injury.
A couple of players had fluctuations of no more than 1 mph. CC Sabathia and C.J. Wilson both had small dips that they recovered the following year. But the overwhelming trend is that once the velocity goes, it is gone for good. Pitchers tend to hit peak velocity in their careers and slowly lose a small amount of speed each and every year. The trend is overwhelming.
The best scenario for Jimenez seems to be Vazquez’s case. Ubaldo never gets back the high nineties fastball but he gets a little back. But the mostly likely scenario seems further attrition. Of course, Ubaldo’s case is very unusual. Pitcher don’t normally have dramatic drop in velocity. Maybe if I had access to a larger research pool, I would find a player that had a dramatic drop and rebounded. Ubaldo is an exception to the normal trend. Maybe he could be some exception that proves a rule about regain velocity. At this time, I am very doubtful.
Plus, common sense holds that people don't retain their full skills over time. Common sense would dictate that Jim is no longer the fastest gun in the world. Age and abuse take a toll on one’s physical abilities. As mortal beings, some of what is lost cannot be recovered. That doesn’t mean that the story doesn’t end well. It does. But Jim should no longer face the pressure of constant challenges. He is not the person anymore. He is not the Waco Kid, fastest gun in the world. He is Jim, Bart’s gunslinger sidekick.
Given what I see with other pitchers, I am deeply skeptical about storyline #3 for Ubaldo. Most likely that velocity is pretty much gone for good. The flame-throwing true ace is likely no more.
Velocity and pitch selection are the big differences between Ubaldo the ace and Ubaldo the disgrace. Let’s turn now to pitch selection.
I am not claiming to know Ubaldo’s future. Are we looking at storyline #2 where Ubaldo is solid middle of the rotation pitcher, or storyline #1 where Ubaldo is quickly pitching himself out of baseball? I don't know. Neverthess, I do believe that his pitch selection does give us some clues as to what lies ahead.
Ubaldo at his best ('10) loved the 2-seam fastball. It was his primary pitch (37.9%). In ’10, he threw the 2-seamer 1.353 times. Ubaldo at his worst ('12) only threw the 2-seamer 467 times. He dropped from throwing it 37.9% of the time to 15%.
What was Ubaldo at his worst throwing instead of the 2-seamer? His primary pitch in ’12 was the four-seam fastball (39.9% up from 22.2%). Ubaldo at his best threw the 4-seam fastball 952 times, and at his worst, he threw it 1238 times.
He may have abandoned the 2-seamer, because it wasn't as effective a pitch. And it wasn't. Opposing batters hit the sinker for .632 OPS in ’10 and .732 OPS in ’12. But, and this is a Sir-Mix-A-Lot sized but, the 4-seam fastball was the worst of all possible worlds. Opposing hitters crushed the Ubaldo’s 4-seam fastball to the tune of .938 OPS. To put it another way, Ubaldo’s 4-seam fastball turned the average hitter into Robinson Cano (.929 OPS in ’12).
The 4-seam fastball was so bad last year that it is tempting to tell him to never throw it again. But the mystery that is Ubaldo Jimenez chose the 4-seamer over the 2-seamer again, and again, and again. Why keep going to a pitch that is getting murdered? Why did he abandon the 2-seamer, the more effective of the two pitches? I got nothing.
For me, the 2-seamer holds the key. Can Ubaldo regain command and confidence in the pitch? If this happens, then we should start to see more 2-seamers. With a greater percentage of 2-seamers, we should see more groundballs. More groundballs will lead to less home runs. In other words, good things should happen.