It was exactly what the Orioles had envisioned when they signed Ubaldo Jimenez to a four-year, $50 million contract seven months earlier.
With a chance to clinch their first division championship in 17 years last Sept. 16, the Orioles sent the right-handed starter to the hill against Toronto and Jimenez pitched solidly — two earned runs allowed in five innings — to earn the victory. Of course, it was one of the few bright spots of a disastrous season in which Jimenez eventually lost his spot in the starting rotation and was left off the American League Championship Series roster.
Spring training breeds optimism and hope for transformation, and there would be no bigger breakthrough than the Orioles getting Jimenez on track as they try to defend their 2014 AL East title. Pitching coach Dave Wallace believes confidence was as big a problem as any as Jimenez tried to prove himself worthy to his new club. Jimenez acknowledged Saturday that he didn’t follow his normal offseason routine last year as he didn’t sign with the Orioles until after spring training had already started, and it likely led to problems in being able to repeat his complicated delivery.
In 25 games (22 starts) and 125 1/3 innings, Jimenez went 6-9 with a 4.81 ERA and posted a career-worst 5.5 walks per nine innings.
“Who knows what was going through his mind last year? New team, new contract, all that stuff,” Wallace said last month. “Hopefully, that’s all pushed aside. He actually came up with a couple things last year that he made changes with in September that helped him a little bit. We’ll see if we can continue that.”
It’s hardly the first time that Jimenez’s unorthodox mechanics have come into focus as Cleveland pitching coach Mickey Callaway was credited for rebuilding the veteran starter after a career-worst 5.40 ERA in 2012. Jimenez rebounded in the second half of 2013 to finish with a 3.30 ERA, his best season since his 2010 All-Star campaign in Colorado.
Jimenez previously brought his hands high above his head in his windup, which he believes created too many moving parts in his mechanics that hindered his control. In September, Jimenez abandoned that approach, keeping his hands quieter and in front of him as he pitched to a 3.27 ERA in 11 innings with 12 strikeouts. His seven walks reflected that his control was still a problem, but the small sample size brings a glimmer of hope that Jimenez can bounce back in 2015.
He wouldn’t be the first Orioles starter to adjust his windup in recent years as ace Chris Tillman has credited a simpler motion for the success he began enjoying in 2012 and Kevin Gausman has also quieted the movement in his windup since being selected in the first round of the 2012 draft. Jimenez hopes his adjustments will lead to similar results.
The Dominican pitcher estimated that he threw five bullpen sessions and live batting practice this winter in preparation for the start of spring training after the disruptive offseason last year. Manager Buck Showalter was impressed with the pitcher’s first bullpen session in Sarasota on Friday as he continued the simplified approach he used late last year.
“It was all about not going over the top of my head because I was going way too far and that makes my mechanics go everywhere,” Jimenez told reporters in Sarasota on Saturday. “Right now, I’m able to simplify everything by grabbing the ball and just going straight to home plate. Once I saw everything was working, I was staying with it and I’m not changing anything.”
With Showalter and Wallace needing to choose among six starters for five spots in the rotation, Jimenez will need to pitch effectively this spring, but just under $39 million remaining on his deal mean he’ll receive every opportunity to prove last year was a fluke. Historically, Jimenez’s fastball velocity has been the key in determining whether his mechanics are right as his average of 90.6 miles per hour last season was the slowest of his career and continued a steady decline since 2010 when his fastball averaged 96.3.
Much of that can be attributed to wear and tear, but an increase closer to his 2013 level (92.1 miles per hour) would indicate he’s on a better track. Opposing hitters also made contact on 80.8 percent of their swings a year ago, up from his career mark of 78.3 percent. Jimenez still averaged 8.3 strikeouts per nine innings a year ago — the same as his career mark — but hitters were more patient than ever (4.15 pitches per plate appearance) against him as he struggled to throw strikes.
It’s easy to say the Orioles regret their rich investment in Jimenez after one season, but his track record suggests better results are likely in order for 2015. Whether that improvement will be enough to justify a spot in the rotation is the real question after the Orioles’ other five starters each posted an ERA of 3.65 or lower a year ago.
“Hopefully, everything changes and I’m going to be able to compete better and be able to give the team a chance to win,” Jimenez said. “Last year was a disappointing year. It was a really bad year. There’s no doubt about it, but just changing my mechanics makes everything better. I’m going to be able to compete.”
For the price they’re paying Jimenez over the next three seasons, the Orioles certainly hope so.