When I began writing this article, the thesis was to discourage the Toronto Blue Jays from targeting Ubaldo Jimenez after he inevitably declines the 14.1 million dollar qualifying offer the Cleveland Indians have offered him (note: he did while this article was in the draft stage). History contains more than enough evidence to support the generalized statement that free agency is bad. With six years of team control to start their careers, free agents are almost always past or on their way out of their prime years, and the bidding and courting process all but guarantees that teams will be offering more years than they’d truly like to. The end result is nearly universally an old, mildly productive player taking up way too largea share of team payroll in the back end of the deal. Examples? Alfonso Soriano, Barry Zito, Carl Crawford, and Adam Dunn. Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton represent more recent examples that appear well on their way to going horribly awry. The list goes on and on. Front offices sign these players thinking that they can give their team a shot at success, and seemingly more often than not, within a couple of years they’re doing their best to get themselves out from underneath the contract. With that being said, you’ll see by the end of this piece that, perhaps unfortunately, I have managed to talk myself into the theory that targeting Ubaldo Jimenez is a sound strategy for the organization.
Reasons to be pessimistic:
What better place to start with than the bad, as the moment any contract is signed, despite outward jubilation, deep down inside you’re running through the scenarios in which things go wrong – and after the way many of last winter’s transactions turned out, it’s hard not to.
Surprisingly, I could only find two red flags with Jimenez, though they’re not insignificant. The first has to do with the velocity of his sinker, which has proven to be the bread-and-butter piece of his arsenal. As you can see in the chart below (all data via BrooksBaseball.net), his velocity has declined every season since his breakout 2010. Four years ago the sinker averaged 97.05 miles per hour, and last season it averaged just 92.16 miles per hour. That’s massive. The decline in velocity with his four seam fastball follows a similar trend, though to a slightly lesser extent (96.57 mph to 92.96 mph). I added a best fit line covering all six of his complete major league seasons, and coincidentally it matches up very well with the last three seasons – obviously the most relevant in terms of future projection. If the velocity decline follows this seemingly established linear trend, it will clock in at 91.45 mph in 2014 and just 88.59 mph in 2017 – the first and last years of a theoretical four year contract. Can he survive without the ability to reach back and blow hitters away when needed? It’s difficult to say, but it’s something that whoever signs him will be finding out whether they want to or not.
The second red flag I uncovered is regarding Jimenez’ groundball rate, specifically its downward trend. From 2008 through 2012, a timeframe covering five seasons, Ubaldo has seen his groundball percentage decrease from 54.4% all the way down to 38.4%. It recovered to 43.9% in 2013 (with a hypothesis why to come later), but even so, that’s a startling trend for a sinker/slider type pitcher. Keeping the ball on the ground (and in the park) is essential to success in the AL East, given the potency of the lineups and the friendliness of the confines. Jimenez has curbed the negative trend, and I think it’s fair to say he’ll need to maintain that >40% groundball rate to survive.
Reasons to be optimistic:
The pessimistic side of the argument is significant and maybe even a little daunting, but every free agent has his warts, and the positive aspects that Jimenez brings to the table should not be over looked.
First and foremost I must point to the startling level of durability and reliability that Jimenez has displayed in his six full seasons. Never less than 31 starts; never fewer than 175 innings. Many – myself included – scoffed at the Mark Buehrle acquisition because that’s all he can do, yet twelve months and numerous pitcher injuries and implosions later, it’s painfully obvious: that’s an incredibly valuable asset in a pitcher. Further to the point is that Jimenez hasn’t simply eaten the innings; he’s pitched very well in five of the six seasons. Of those six seasons, 2012 was the lone year in which Jimenez failed to produce 3+ WAR. The ERA has gone up and down throughout his career, but that appears to be a greater reflection of good and bad luck than anything Ubaldo has control over. This point can be emphasized by looking at his FIP – a fielding independent pitching metric, and how consistent the statistic has been over his major league career: 3.83, 3.36, 3.10, 3.67, 5.06, 3.43. The 5.06 FIP came in 2012, when Jimenez was clearly subpar. His strikeout and walk rates were both career worsts, his HR/FB% and HR/9 were career highs, and, as previously mentioned, his groundball rate was a career low.
Moving forward, I’m of the belief that 2012 was the fluke, not 2013, and that Ubaldo will be able to sustain success and provide sufficient value to make his potential contract a worthwhile gamble. Earlier I spoke to his resurgent groundball rate, and mentioned I had a possible explanation as to why and how he managed to raise it back up over 40%. The reasoning, at least the way I see it, has entirely to do with the slider. In 2012, Jimenez’ primary breaking ball (16.22% usage) acted more like a Frisbee than a true down-and-away slider. In scouting terms, it lost its tilt. In PitchFX terms, it had 4.86 inches of horizontal movement, and just 0.33 inches of vertical movement. When you throw a breaking ball hard like Ubaldo does, mutli-plane break is important as it gives the pitch another way to move out of the batter’s swing path. Additionally, with a Frisbee-type slider, the only way to get ball-to-strike movement is away. With tilt, the pitch can move away, but it can also dive down towards the dirt – good for swings and misses as well as groundballs. Ubaldo (or his coaches) clearly recognized this, as in 2013 his slider generated 3.93 inches of horizontal movement and a career-high 2.52 inches of vertical movement.Looking even deeper, the right hander threw his slider 24.98% of the time, easily a career high, and struck out 9.56 batters per nine, also a career high. Is there a correlation here? I’m inclined to think so.
Earlier this fall, Fangraphs asked their readers to vote on baseball’s free agents and share what they would be comfortable paying them, as well as perhaps more importantly, what they expect the players to receive on the open market in the real world. For Ubaldo Jimenez, the crowd proposed a 4 year, 48.8 million dollar contract in the real world, with the “comfort” level contract being a notch lower at 3 years, 33.3 million. As I touched on at the start, when dealing in free agency, you’re always going to be giving more years than you’re comfortable with. If we take the 4 year suggestion, what type of production would Ubaldo need to have in order to be “worth” it, and how would that look on Toronto’s payroll?
There used to be a rough equivalency in free agency where 4-5 million dollars should buy you 1 WAR. At that rate, the expectation would be that Ubaldo produces 11 WAR over the course of the contract for Toronto to get their “money’s worth”. With that being said, because of the influx of cash into the baseball economy, the going rate for 1 WAR on the free agent market is significantly higher, likely in the neighborhood of 6-8 million dollars. If we take the middle, roughly 7 million per win, Jimenez would be expected to produce around 7 WAR over the four years.When taking into consideration the consistency I touched on earlier, I think that’s as close to a certainty as you’ll find out there.
The front office could even go as far as to structure the contract in a back-loaded fashion in order to maintain flexibility and underpay in the short term in exchange for overpaying in years three and four. At that point, Ricky Romero, Mark Buehrle, J.A. Happ, and even R.A. Dickey will be off the books (roughly 40 million), so the club could afford to be paying Jimenez 15 million at the back of the rotation while the front is led by young, cheap alternatives like Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman. A four year contract paying 9, 10, 15, and 15 million in years one through four respectively makes whole lot of sense for our timeline.
I didn’t think it could happen, but after finding myself elbow-deep in the data, I can honestly say I’m now onboard the Ubaldo-to-Toronto train. Let’s make this a reality, Alex.