TUCSON, Ariz. – When Ubaldo Jimenez(notes) turned 16 years old, the New York Mets offered him $20,000 to sign. His father, Ubaldo Sr., drove a city bus. His mother, Ramona, worked as a nurse. In the impoverished Dominican Republic, this was life-changing money, the sort nobody turns down.
Catcher Miguel Olivo tells teammate Ubaldo Jimenez (above) that the pitcher will win the NL Cy Young.
"My parents said no," Jimenez said. "They didn't want me to sign until I finished high school. I always respected my parents, and I knew it was for my own good, so I didn't sign. I always figured I was going to be a doctor anyway."
Today, the Colorado Rockies hurler throws a baseball harder than every other starter in the major leagues, and his nonpareil arm isn't nearly his most intriguing aspect. That would be who Jimenez is in spite of – and perhaps because of – where he grew up.
The Dominican is an educational wasteland. Less than half the country's children attend high school, and a significantly lower number graduates. The country spends a little more than 2 percent of its gross domestic product on public education, about 60 percent less than the United States. The culture swallows up generations of youth, and the poverty cycle continues unabated.
Baseball offers an escape for boys who now see that more than 10 percent of Major League Baseball players are of Dominican descent, and so it's nothing for a buscon – a talent agent of sorts – to snatch a 12-year-old out of school, place him in a baseball academy for four years and farm him out to teams as a 16-year-old international free agent. Though no official statistics are kept on high-school graduation among Dominican players, it's safe to say at most a handful of the 128 who played in the major leagues last year earned a diploma.
Jimenez's parents saw the penury of their homeland and wanted something different, and as they cultivated their son's love of baseball, they made sure to nurture his mind as well. Jimenez took English lessons near his home in San Cristobal on the weekends, and once Ubaldo Sr. and Ramona realized these lessons were substandard, they sent Ubaldo and his older sister, Leidys, on an hour-long bus ride to the capital city of Santo Domingo for better tutoring. Jimenez's curiosity grew, as did his ability to throw a ball.
"I used to love medicine," he said. "My mom's a nurse. It's something I grew up seeing. Every time people got sick, my mom would be the one who helped make them better."
Leidys is studying to be a doctor. Ubaldo chose to take his scalpel to hitters.
Rolando Fernandez, the Rockies' director of Latin American operations, came to Jimenez's parents with a compromise: If he signed with the Rockies, they would allow him to finish high school. The family appreciated the gesture, Jimenez passed his boards and soon thereafter the franchise had a right-hander who quickly proved Fernandez's patience worthwhile.
Jimenez grew two inches, and a fastball that clocked at 86 mph as a 16-year-old was up to 93 mph. As Jimenez added weight – he's now 213 pounds, nearly 50 more than when he signed – the velocity grew likewise, and the arm all of the neighborhood kids envied was suddenly among the major leagues' best.
His tales of playing as a child mimic so many others from the Dominican: Jimenez and his friends would find a stone, wrap a couple socks around it, cut down a tree branch and spend hours playing crude games of baseball. Sometimes, when they came upon a pile of pebbles, the kids picked them up and threw them as far as possible. Jimenez's always carried the longest, knocking out windows and causing him and his friends to scatter in a dozen different directions.
No one there ever bothered to point out the slight hitch in Jimenez's delivery, where he almost launches his arm backward before bringing it into perfect firing position. The Rockies wanted to tinker with it, especially when a sore shoulder kept him out most of 2004, but Jimenez was stubborn – and, he said, pain-free since.
Better yet, he lost no zip on the fastball. It averaged 94.9 mph in 2008, the highest velocity in the major leagues, and jumped to 96.1 mph last year, the highest since Baseball Info Solutions started compiling such data in 2002. In a game against Cincinnati on Aug. 1, Jimenez threw seven pitches at 100 mph or faster. Perhaps the radar gun was a tick heavy that night, though anything near 100 is rare for a pitcher, let alone a starter.
Bringing the heat
A look at starters who threw the hardest in the big leagues last season:
Ubaldo Jimenez, Col.
Justin Verlander, Det.
Josh Johnson, Fla.
*Edwin Jackson, Det.
A.J. Burnett, NYY
*Jackson now with Arizona
Source: Fangraphs and Y! Sports
"I've never driven a car 100," Jimenez said.
So it's with that fastball, which features an uncharacteristic amount of movement for a pitch traveling so fast, that Jimenez embarks on 2010 at the top of the rotation for a team with enormous potential. Jimenez, 26, embodies the Rockies' core of young, homegrown players, and manager Jim Tracy named him the opening day starter without hesitation.
Jimenez earned it by placing himself among elite company last year. Toss aside his 15-12 record. Only four pitchers recorded more than 50 percent groundballs and eight-plus strikeouts per nine innings: AL Cy Young runner-up Felix Hernandez(notes), NL Cy Young contender Adam Wainwright(notes), Florida ace Josh Johnson(notes) and Jimenez. Three other pitchers are in the top 25 of both groundball percentage and strikeouts per nine: Tim Lincecum(notes), Roy Halladay(notes) and Jon Lester(notes).
"I just laugh when he says it," Jimenez said. "I wish."
It's not far-fetched. Jimenez's ERA dropped more than a half point from 2008 to 2009, he halved his wild pitches and he decreased walks while increasing strikeouts. As long as Jimenez can continue to command his pitches, he can start to use his head to complement his arm.
Already he succeeds at changing the hitters' eye levels, feathering balls not just inside and outside but up and down. When they do get on, batters often ask Rockies first baseman Todd Helton(notes) how Jimenez's ball moves with such ferocity at such velocity.
"He's going to be one of those guys like [Curt] Schilling," Helton said. "He'll pitch, pitch, pitch, and once he gets in a jam, he'll have 100 [mph] to fall back on. He's smart. He's so smart. And he's just learning to pitch."
Once he does tap into his full complement of physical and mental acumen, Jimenez could join Juan Marichal and Pedro Martinez(notes) among the best pitchers to come from the Dominican. And he'll do so with familiar faces surrounding him. His parents spend most of the season in Denver with him, and while Leidys finishes med school they bring along her 5-year-old daughter, Crisley.
It's all comforting for Jimenez, being surrounded by the people who rescued him from his surroundings. He's the exception, and he'd still be even without the best fastball in the game.