Even with this season’s weak free agent class, there were deals to be found for the rotation in need of an excellent arm. Brandon McCarthy, Dan Haren and Shawn Marcum were probably the best high-upside bargains. While Marcum is still out there, Washington was able to snag Haren on a one-year “prove-it” deal worth $13MM, and McCarthy signed a back-loaded two year pact worth $15.5MM, heading to Arizona. With options dwindling it seems increasingly likely that teams looking to improve for less dough will have to part with more than money by exploring upgrades via trade.
One of the worst players on the block market is Ubaldo Jimenez. Many fans may remember him from his electric first half in 2010. But he is no longer that pitcher. Though just 28 years old, the right-hander’s skills are fading rapidly. In 2012 he was one of just three starters to throw 175 innings or more, and still produce less than .5 WAR.
Heater in Trouble
Ubaldo Jimenez’s average fastaball velocity was the highest among starting pitchers from 2008-2010, peaking at 96 mph. That was in 2009. Last season, his heater clocked a tic below Jeremy Guthrie’s at 92.5 mph. The Major League average was 91.8 mph. In terms of pitch values, Ubaldo’s fastball was 18 runs worse than average last year. What happens when a fireballer loses his fireball?
For Jimenez, it has meant doubling the use of his change-up (18% of the time), and adding a splitter in 2010. He has also relied more heavily on a two seam fastball (its slower avg velocity does not count against that of the four seamers). But the effort to shift away from his most troubled offering has not paid off.
The Deeper Problem
Felix Hernandez was tops with an average fastball velocity of 96 mph in 2007. Last season, his heater averaged 92.4 mph. But Felix hasn’t struggled through his velocity dip. What is different about Jimenez?
Hernandez has great control and terrific secondary stuff. Over time, Ubaldo’s slider has lost depth, and hitters have become more selective against him, while he has become more erratic. In 2008, Jimenez’ slowest pitch was 20 mph behind his fastball. That differential shrunk to 15 mph in 2012. The real setback has been an inability to keep the ball on the ground.
To have your splitter produce groundballs just 35.6% of the time, which Ubaldo accomplished last season, is a special feat on its own. But his fastball and slider each produced ground balls at a rate below 30%, something none of his pitches had done before 2012. The collapse of his GB%, and rising BB/9, along with the fact that hitters no longer have to worry about the steep differential between his pitch velocities, have combined to destroy a pitcher who seemed headed for stardom.
If your team trades for Ubaldo, hope the Indians pay that salary and that you only have to give up a fringe prospect or a spare part to get him. While certainly not disastrous (because of the low projected cost of completing a swap), any deal for Jimenez will be a waste of time.
The Bright Side
Maybe time travel will become commercially available at some point during the 2013 season, and a lucky GM can go grab 25-year old Ubaldo Jimenez, passing him off as the late model for long enough to make a push for the post season. Personally, I’ll be going back for a 19 year old Satchel Paige, but I’m a little old fashioned.
*All amazing stats by amazing Fangraphs