How a Dominant Ubaldo Jimenez Changes AL Playoff Picture for Cleveland Indians

Adam WellsFeatured ColumnistSeptember 29, 2013

If you want to find the one player who embodies the turnaround the Cleveland Indians had from a disastrous 68-94 season in 2012 to a 92-70 mark and hosting the Wild Card Game in 2013, look no further than Ubaldo Jimenez.

The Indians acquired Jimenez from Colorado at the trade deadline in 2011 after the team got off to a surprisingly fast start and was threatening for a playoff spot for a few months before fading down the stretch.

Jimenez's first full season in Cleveland was, to put it nicely, an unmitigated disaster.

His fastball velocity, which had been trending down the previous year, was a career-low 92.5 mph. Rarely did he know where the ball was going when it left his hand.

In 31 starts, Jimenez's 5.40 ERA was fourth-worst among starters with at least 150 innings pitched, and his 4.98 expected fielding independent ERA (xFIP) was the second-worst mark in baseball.

It looked as if Jimenez's best days were long behind him. Certainly this year didn't start out much different, with a 7.13 ERA and 19-13 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 24 April innings.

But the second half, and especially September, has been a different story.

Jimenez's velocity isn't back up to the 97-98 mph range it was at his best in Colorado, but everything else has come back in grand fashion.

Buster Olney of ESPN noted Jimenez's turnaround since the end of July, which includes a dominant 13-strikeout effort in 6.2 innings in Cleveland's Wild Card-clinching victory over Minnesota on Sunday.

The Indians have long been searching for someone to pitch at the top of the rotation after being forced to trade CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee in consecutive seasons due to their impending free agency.

Jimenez might not be at the level those two were when they left Cleveland, but he's certainly made things very interesting for this franchise.

We all know that one of the big keys to October success is dominant starting pitching that can miss bats. Jimenez has averaged 10.7 strikeouts per nine innings in the second half and 9.6 for the season.

What's even better about Jimenez's performance is the way he adapted to changes in his body and found mechanics that allowed him to throw strikes more consistently, as well as throw enough quality strikes to be a dominant pitcher.

Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports wrote about Jimenez's renaissance recently, with Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway talking about a few tweaks that helped turn everything around: tempo, stride, posture and a strong front side.

"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."

Jimenez echoed those comments. "I would come to the stadium every day optimistic, positive I would get it. I never gave up. I had to find a way to get it back," Jimenez told Passan. "Someday, it was going to click. I was going to have it back."

This could be a monumental season for Jimenez, which makes it a big story for the Indians.

They still have to get through Wednesday's Wild Card Game against the winner of Monday's Tampa Bay-Texas game before we see Jimenez again, but think about what the Indians are working with right now if they win that game.

If the Indians make it to the American League Division Series, they will play Boston. The Red Sox would likely start Jon Lester in Game 1. He has also been fantastic in the second half with a 2.57 ERA and 74-22 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 87.2 innings.

But would you really give Boston a huge edge in that game with Jimenez on the mound for Cleveland?

The Red Sox would certainly be favored, but it would be much closer odds than casual fans not paying attention to the Indians would think.

After that, Indians manager Terry Francona has a number of intriguing options, including rookie Danny Salazar, who throws as hard as anyone not named Aroldis Chapman and was named starter for the Wild Card Game, per Danny Knobler of CBS Sports. Francona also has Justin Masterson, who was Cleveland's top starter before getting hurt in early September, in the next two games.

It remains to be seen what role Masterson will fill in the postseason. He has pitched out of the bullpen since returning, making three appearances in the final week of the season. Considering the issues Cleveland has with Chris Perez, another arm in the back of the 'pen might be necessary.

But everything starts at the top, especially in a five-game series where there is so little margin for error. Jimenez gives the Indians everything they hoped he would when they acquired him two years ago.

This is not to say the Indians are suddenly favorites in the AL or will even make it to the Division Series, but you can't dismiss them as this little group of ragtag misfits who had a lucky month to make the playoffs.

After all, who would have thought that Jimenez could turn his career around to be in the discussion to start Game 1 of the ALDS after hitting rock bottom in 2012?


Note: All stats courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball Reference unless otherwise noted.

If you want to talk baseball, feel free to hit me up on Twitter with questions or comments.


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