Ubaldo Jimenez looks for speedy recovery with Tribe
GOODYEAR, Ariz. – Ubaldo Jimenez pulls out an iPad from his locker. He wants to look at some video, though first he swipes through a few pictures. Here’s one of him as a kid in the Dominican Republic, looking just like his dad. And another from the first day of his first spring training, with a pair of dark, tapered jeans clinging unfashionably to the 18-year-old who knew no better. Jimenez smiles. He’s a sucker for nostalgia.
It’s why when he reaches the end of the pictures and taps on the video, Jimenez can’t hide his excitement.
“Watch this,” he says.
Adrian Gonzalez stands in the batter’s box. Jimenez lurks atop the pitcher’s mound. It’s June 28, 2010, near the height of Jimenez’s pitching powers, when for more than two months he carried an ERA below 1.00 and before the All-Star break he won 15 games. Hitters swore they never had seen a fastball like Jimenez’s, a 100-mph blur that moved with the temerity of a knuckleball. Less than a month earlier, he threw one to Juan Uribe that kamikazed over the outside corner and inspired more plaudits than any pitch since a young Clayton Kershaw snapped off a curveball that Vin Scully deemed Public Enemy No. 1.
The first pitch to Gonzalez is a fastball, 97 mph, that runs for a ball.
“Look at this one,” Jimenez says.
It’s another 97-mph fastball, and it darts like a breaking ball for a strike. Jimenez could aim inside to left-handers, knowing the ball would run back over the plate, or throw straight down the middle and allow his natural movement to carry it over the outside corner.
After he loses a split-fingered fastball, Jimenez throws a fastball 99 for another called strike, and here is where Jimenez’s exhilaration crests. Hitters with two-strike counts that year hit .146 and slugged .207 against him. Jimenez knew he could feed Gonzalez a silly chase pitch, and chances are he’d grab the bat, and he did, swinging through a 98-mph fastball that was well into the right-handed batter’s box. Jimenez lorded off the mound emboldened; Gonzalez skulked back to the dugout emasculated. Jimenez wouldn’t allow a hit through the first five innings.
“Not bad,” he says.
He turns the iPad off. The scene on it feels far older than it is. Gonzalez shed his San Diego Padres uniform for Boston Red Sox togs and the $154 million contract that accompanied them. Jimenez, too, has undergone a drastic change. Away he went from the Colorado Rockies to the Cleveland Indians, a trade that could happen only if in the interceding months something had gone very wrong.
That’s why Bob Chester, the Indians’ manager of video operations, uploaded the footage from that June 28 start for Jimenez to study. Something had indeed gone very wrong. Ubaldo Jimenez is no longer that pitcher. And the scary part is, nobody can say whether he will be again.
For the first two months of the 2011 season, Jimenez insisted he was perfectly healthy. Aside from a torn cuticle on his right thumb – the key finger for his two-seam fastball, since he bends the digit at a right angle and lodges it against the ball instead of squeezing with his fingerprint – all was well.
Toward the end of May, the truth came out. Jimenez strained a groin in spring training. A hip flexor nagged as well. He was hurt, and it threw the rest of his mechanics – already “unorthodox and high maintenance,” Indians manager Manny Acta said – entirely out of whack. Between overcompensation for his leg and a new grip on his fastball, Jimenez didn’t win his first game until June 1, a point at which he was 10-1 with an 0.78 ERA the year before.
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Meanwhile, Jimenez’s relationship with the Rockies continued to deteriorate. The team had signed him as a 17-year-old, willing to let him graduate from high school per his parents’ wishes, and promoted him to the major leagues based much more on stuff than results. It played, and even in the two full years before 2010, Jimenez had established himself as one of the National League’s toughest pitchers.
For the Rockies to shop him around the trade deadline indicated something was amiss. Former teammates have accused him of jealousy over the huge contracts Colorado gave shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and outfielder Carlos Gonzalez while Jimenez in January 2009 signed an under-market deal that likely will take him through 2013.
“It’s not about the contract,” Jimenez says. “People are going to say that. They know what it is.”
Jimenez wouldn’t expound, and the Rockies have denied any mistreatment. Either way, the chasm hastened Colorado’s eagerness to jettison Jimenez, and they received the Indians’ top two pitching prospects, Drew Pomeranz and Alex White. Because of Jimenez’s reasonable contract and what the Indians believed to be correctable flaws, Cleveland sprung at that deal, even if it cost the team 12 years of top prospects.
The Indians had noticed an inconsistency in Jimenez’s stride toward home plate, likely borne of the groin strain. Sometimes it was short, others long, consistent in its inconsistency. Whoever found it – GM Chris Antonetti said it was scouts and field staff while manager Manny Acta claims it was the Indians’ analytics department – didn’t matter; the team believed it could rescue Jimenez from his doldrums and return the missing 2½ mph off his fastball, which sat at 93.5 mph last year after consecutive seasons averaging 96.
“When [his stride] was a little longer,” Acta says, “it made a big difference. That’s what he had when he was successful. As long as he’s healthy and can attack the strike zone, he’ll be OK.”
The Indians speak more in the future tense than conditional. They want to believe – need to believe – that all is well with Jimenez, that a few tweaks here and there will undo 2011. They’re giving him time and tools to work out his kinks, handing Justin Masterson the opening day start instead of Jimenez. He likes it in Cleveland, better than Colorado for sure, even if that was where he tasted invincibility.
“I always try to tell him nobody wants to hit his fastball,” says Ryan Spilborghs, a former Colorado teammate trying to make Cleveland’s roster. “It moves a ton. I know at times he gets away from it. You don’t have a pitch like that and then not have it, especially not with an arm injury, which he doesn’t have.
“You don’t lose it all of a sudden, right?”
Ubaldo Jimenez swears he’s healthy.
“I’m 100 percent now,” he says.
He’s reminded he said the same thing last year.
“It’s not like when I got traded to Cleveland and was trying to get my health back,” he says. “It’s totally different. I have everything now. I’m just trying to develop it in spring training so when the season comes, I’ll be able to use it.”
Acta echoes Jimenez, and Indians upper management says there’s no problematic damage to Jimenez’s arm. Indians teammates have raved about the quality of Jimenez’s stuff during side sessions. Scouts around the Cactus League, then, are wondering why more than halfway through spring training his velocity remains nowhere close to 2010 levels. A number who have seen his games this spring regularly clock his fastball from 89-92 mph, and, they say, it lacks the electric movement that turned a great pitch unhittable.
Whether those missing miles will show up as spring training continues is the imperative question for Jimenez, now 28. If he exaggerates or stretches the truth about his well-being, it’s generally with good intentions. He is a people pleaser, often to a fault. Were he not playing baseball, Jimenez likely would have studied medicine, like his sister, in the Dominican Republic.
Instead, he throws, hungry to find a version of himself he once knew. This offseason, Jimenez flew to New York for an autograph show. Joining him were Randy Johnson, Tom Seaver, Francisco Liriano and others – all members of the no-hitter club. Jimenez twirled his in April 2010.
Sounds like perfect iPad material.
“It was really fun to look at myself when I was pitching in 2010,” Jimenez says, and he wants that excitement again, more than anything. It may be there. It may not. He may be healthy. He may not. Less than two years ago, he was the best pitcher in the major leagues. Now he’s not the best in his rotation.
He sits down in a chair, slips on a set of headphones, plugs it into the iPad and starts his video again. Think hard enough, study hard enough, believe hard enough, try hard enough. That’s the plan. And all Ubaldo Jimenez can do now is hope this time it goes very right.
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