At this point in the season, it is difficult to comprehend just how good Ubaldo Jimenez has been.
Towards the end of last season, it was clear that Jimenez was blossoming into the Rockies’ staff ace.
After a 1-3 start that saw him carry a 7.58 ERA into a May 1 start against San Francisco, Jimenez reeled off 25 consecutive starts of six innings or more in 2009, never once allowing more than four runs.
Not factoring in the slow start and a forgettable Sept. 15 outing against the Giants, Jimenez was 14-7 on the year with a 2.84 ERA. His consistent and dependable play was one of the main reasons Colorado made the playoffs for the second time in three years.
This year, Jimenez may not only be the best player on his team; he may be the best player in the league.
Nine starts into the season, Jimenez has allowed a grand total of seven earned runs. In an April 16 contest against Atlanta, Rockies starter Jason Hammel gave up seven earned runs in less than two innings.
The next day, Jimenez threw a no-hitter.
Jimenez currently has his ERA just a shade under 1.00. Only St. Louis’ Jaime Garcia has an ERA under 2.00 among starters in either league. No other starter in the league has more than six wins, save Tampa Bay’s David Price. Jimenez has eight.
So how is he doing it? What’s changed?
Actually, it’s not so much that Jimenez is doing something dramatically different from years past. Rather, he’s doing what he used to do, but he’s doing it better.
In 2009, Jimenez was the hardest throwing starting pitcher in the league. His fastball averaged a blistering 96.1 mph. So far in 2010, Jimenez has dialed up his average fastball to an unthinkable 96.8 mph, a full 1.2 mph faster than every other starter in the league, and 2.4 mph faster than everyone but Felipe Paulino and Justin Verlander.
It may not seem like much, but when a pitcher’s fastball is nearly three percent better than every other pitcher’s offering in the entire world, it makes a difference.
It’s the equivalent of a golfer hitting his drive 10 yards further than everyone else on tour, on every course, and every hole. It’s a major competitive advantage.
But an improved fastball doesn’t represent the main change in Jimenez’s game. He isn’t even throwing it as much as he once did. Just two years ago, Jimenez threw his fastball (at that time averaging 94.9 mph) nearly 70 percent of the time.
So far in 2010, he has thrown the fastball only 59.1 percent of the time, relying much more heavily on his change-up, a pitch he throws at 88.2 mph (still faster than many starter’s fastballs).
Considering how often he throws it, Jimenez’s change-up may be even more overpowering than his fastball. While he has modestly increased his velocity on his fastball, his change-up velocity has dropped 1.4 mph and has shown a marked change in movement.
Using one of the best fastballs in the game and keeping hitters off-balance with a second plus-pitch with movement, Jimenez has emerged as a force in the National League and has been gaining steam as an early Cy Young candidate.
The right-hander is on pace for a 29-4 record, 210 strikeouts, and 25 earned runs. If Jimenez could put a season like that together, it would go down as one of the single greatest pitching performances in Major League History. Forget the Cy Young Award. We would be talking about historical greatness.
I’d say the young guy is off to a pretty solid start.