Wanna know how bad it got? He would stand in front of mirrors and stare at himself. The implement of narcissists and teenage girls everywhere became Ubaldo Jimenez’s silent psychologist. At the ballpark, at the hotel – sometimes even at home. He would stand sideways, his left shoulder pointing at his reflection, and pretend like he was throwing a pitch. And he would do it again, and again, and again, and again, as many times as he needed to until it looked right and felt right.
Players are not supposed to lose their ability to play like Jimenez did. Rarely does it just vanish overnight, never to come back. So Jimenez believed, because there was no other choice. Throwing a baseball is difficult, throwing it consistently for strikes even more so, and his arm had become a Rubik’s Cube. He twisted and turned and tried to solve the puzzle, and it only got harder. A week bled into a month, a month into a year, a year into two more. By then it’s usually gone.
“It took a long time,” Jimenez said. “Almost three years. It was crazy. But I got it finally.”
Time will determine if Ubaldo Jimenez really is back – if the guy who went 14-1 to kick off the 2010 season and started the All-Star Game that year still exists. The rebuilding of any pitcher is arduous; starting from scratch with the most herky-jerky, catawampus, downright awful-looking delivery was an extra-special challenge for the Indians, one that has been well worth the time, seeing as the 2013 version of Jimenez has been a pretty reasonable facsimile of his successful self.
Since the All-Star break, no pitcher in the American League owns a better ERA than Jimenez’s 1.83. After posting double-digit strikeout games twice in the last two years, he has three in his five most recent outings. A fastball that at the beginning of the year dawdled along at 88 mph keeps touching 95, 96, 97, threatening to go higher. And the Cleveland Indians, with their cakewalk schedule starting Thursday against the Houston Astros, turn to Jimenez once again to play the role of ace, the sort they envisioned when they traded for him in 2011.
“When you start looking at his whole season, it gets more and more impressive,” Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway said. “We’ve seen it progress. But if you step back and look at it, it’s more impressive.”
Callaway would know. He orchestrated the entire thing. When he interviewed with new Indians manager Terry Francona last offseason for the pitching-coach job, he outlined the Rescue Ubaldo plan. Coming off a 17-loss, 5.40 ERA season, Jimenez needed something.
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Before Callaway dove in with a mechanical breakdown, he flew to the Dominican Republic twice to meet with Jimenez. He wanted to understand him as a person – how he worked, what motivated him and especially why, after he lost what he once was, he was still so intent on getting it back. Jimenez said he hadn’t been healthy, and all he wanted was one season where things didn’t hurt to recapture his electricity. Some of the injuries came as a function of his efforts. Frightened by his declining velocity, Jimenez tinkered and toyed with his delivery in any number of ways, none of which was altogether comfortable and some of which led to him altering other portions of his windup that turned his legs and knees sore.
When he arrived at spring training this season, Jimenez readied himself for punishment. He felt like he threw 400 innings in 2012 from all the extra work he put in to find his delivery, and he was willing to do the same. Only Callaway didn’t want him to. Jimenez needed to focus on four vital fundamentals, the first of which was simple: tempo.
In trying to home-brew his old delivery, Jimenez slowed it down by as much as one second. Callaway reversed that immediately, and suddenly his pace was back. Next was fixing his stride. Jimenez, by his nature, opens up his hips and falls off to the left of the mound. The longer he stays closed, the easier it is for Jimenez to throw strikes. His strikeout-to-walk ratio since the break: 71-to-23 in 64 innings.
Posture came after that. In order to generate greater arm speed, Jimenez had tried to cheat biomechanics by leaning his right shoulder back to load his scapula and create greater leverage. This threw everything out of sync even more, so the solution was simple: get rid of it. Jimenez took well to the ramrod-straight torso, as he did the final piece: a strong front side. This is where Jimenez practices in front of the mirror these days. He holds his glove-side arm out toward the batter and lets it guide his throwing arm to the plate.
All of these things are so ... fundamental. So easy for most pitchers. That’s always Jimenez’s issue. His delivery comes with so many pieces and parts it should have an instruction manual.
“He’s never going to be the poster child for the clinic,” Francona said. “But when he gets all the parts in sync, when he gets to that balance point, he’s like any other pitcher.”
“I would come to the stadium every day optimistic, positive I would get it,” Jimenez said. “I never gave up. I had to find a way to get it back. Someday, it was going to click. I was going to have it back. Everything I have is natural. It’s not like I’m doing something and I just lost it because I’m not using whatever it is. I know it’s in me.”
From all the time Callaway spent with Jimenez, he recognized as much. Callaway is 38, young for a coach, and at some point he, too, lost his stuff. He was done at 29. Jimenez is 29. Beyond the natural need to fix the key to the rotation, Callaway saw in Jimenez someone at a seminal moment in his career.
“Pitchers go through evolutionary processes,” Callaway said. “Mechanics change because you get older. Or you don’t remember them. Or something happens. He didn’t give up. He wouldn’t.”
And the funniest thing happened: Ubaldo Jimenez got so good, he priced himself right out of Cleveland. He’s not saying anything about his contract, which includes an $8 million player option for 2014 that he’s going to turn down, since at least 10 times that awaits him in free agency. Teams are flush with cash. The best starting pitcher on the market is either Ervin Santana, Matt Garza or Japanese starter Masahiro Tanaka. So, yes. Jimenez will get paid, and paid a lot, and that’s all of two months removed from dread. Funny business.
In the meantime, as life gets more complicated, Jimenez tries to simplify his baseball duties. He’s not throwing all the time in between starts. Just 15 to 20 fastballs on his bullpen day. And best of all, he’s weaning himself off the mirror. He has seen enough failure for one career. He stared his down, challenged it, sneered at it and won. On all six sides of his cube, the colors were perfectly uniform. It looked better than it had in forever.