Days after pitchers and catchers reported to Orioles Spring Training, Baltimore finally made their first splash in the free-agent market. According to FoxSports.com, the Orioles and RHP Ubaldo Jimenez have agreed to a four-year-deal, which CBSSports.com claims to be worth $50 million. In addition to the $50 million, the Orioles will also lose their first-round pick, 17th overall, in the 2014 First-Year Player Draft. Jimenez was one of the AL’s best pitchers in 2013, and the Orioles’ pitching staff was one of the AL’s worst (10th overall), likely slotting him towards the top of the rotation. Let’s take a closer look at the Orioles’ biggest free-agent investment since signing Miguel Tejada (six years, $72 million) in 2003.
With the Cleveland Indians in 2013, Jimenez went 13-9, 3.30 ERA (10th in AL), and 194 SO (9th in AL). His 2013 statistics took a notable turn for the better after his previous two uninspiring seasons. In 2011 (Colorado Rockies and Indians) and 2012 (Indians), Jimenez went 10-13/4.68 and 9-17/5.40. Jimenez certainly made the best out of a contract year, but it is clear that teams were weary of those two previous seasons.
Jimenez is a strikeout pitcher who is at his best when batters don’t make contact. Strikeouts were a huge part of Jimenez’s rebound 2013 season. In 2013, Jimenez’s SO% was 25% (career best), a 7.2% increase from 2012. But in order to strike batters out, Jimenez also had to throw strikes. Jimenez had a 58.2% first-pitch-strike percentage, which was his best of any full season in the majors, and also had a career best 27.7% 0-2 count percentage. Though his ability to throw strikes on a more frequent basis is important, that’s not to say that he was pitch efficient. Jimenez averaged 17.3 pitches per inning last season which is not exactly what the Orioles’ bullpen wants to hear, but high pitch counts are often the result of strikeout pitchers who also walk a lot of batters.
Last season, Jimenez was tied for third place with Texas Rangers RHP Yu Darvish with 80 BBs. The most BBs by any Orioles pitcher last season was 68 by Chris Tillman. This is an interesting statistic in that Jimenez’s 80 BBs was better than average for him. Yes, he walked a lot of batters in 2013, but that is part of his game. He does not want batters to make contact, even at the risk of walking them. His pitches are at times so electric that he cannot locate them, so batters will either swing-and-miss at junk, or they will lay off and take a walk. This could hurt him in the AL East with patient teams like the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, but his season will mostly ride on his strikeouts.
There are countless positives to take away from Jimenez’s 2013 season, but there are still reasons to be cautiously optimistic about the Orioles’ new starting pitcher.
Jimenez is moving from the pitcher friendly Progressive Field in Cleveland, to the hitter friendly Camden Yards in Baltimore. According to ESPN.com, in 2013 Camden Yards had a Park Factor of 1.057 (10th in MLB), and Progressive Field had a 0.933 Park Factor (22nd in MLB). This statistic compares the offensive stats from home and away games to get a number that represents that park’s favorableness or unfavorableness to batters. A number greater than 1 favors hitters, and a number less than 1 favors pitchers. Jimenez will move from 2013’s ninth best pitcher’s park, to 2013’s 10th best hitter’s park and that will likely play at least some role in any step back Jimenez takes this season. The new competition in the AL East may also impact Jimenez this season.
Jimenez pitched 2013 in the AL Central, which scored 2,656 runs (excluding the Indians). Moving to the AL East, which scored 2,915 runs last year (excluding the Orioles), may bring Jimenez down to earth a bit. In Jimenez’s one start against the league’s best offense, the Red Sox scored 7 ER in 1.2 innings before he was taken out of the game. In 4.1 innings in his one start against the Yankees, Jimenez gave up 7 ER, including 2 HRs. As for the Tampa Bay Rays and the Toronto Blue Jays, Jimenez gave up just one run in a combined 20 IP with 17 SOs. What does this mean? Well, the sample size is very small, but the Yankees and Red Sox and their patient hitting (6 IP and 8 BBs combined) may be Jimenez’s kryptonite, and free swinging teams like Tampa Bay and Toronto will be his specialty.
The Orioles have taken a gamble in signing Jimenez to a lengthy and pricey contract, but a gamble with significant payoff potential. If Jimenez can in anyway replicate his 2013 season with the Indians, Baltimore may finally have solidified the top-end of their rotation which will increase their chances at another playoff run. However, if Jimenez falls victim to the Red Sox and Yankees’ patient hitting on a regular basis, or he can’t keep the ball inside the fences at Camden Yards, he could be an expensive acquisition that will make the Orioles that much more leery of free agent pitchers in future offseasons.