Yesterday, Ubaldo Jimenez struck out nine and walked none in a complete game shutout.
Jimenez hasn’t allowed a run in his last 27.1 innings. It’s June 1st, and his ERA stands at 0.78. He’s 10-1 and he also has a no-hitter under his belt this season.
So yeah, he’s kind of having a good season. But is he the best pitcher in baseball? Has he even been baseball’s best so far this season?
Ubaldo is certainly one of the best pitchers in the league and has been for quite some time. No one wanted to pay attention until now. In 2008, Ublado threw 198.2 innings. His ERA was 3.99, and his FIP was 3.83. His control was a major issue, as he walked 4.7 per nine innings.
But he had great stuff, could strike batters out, and could keep the ball on the ground. He took his next leap forward last season, surpassing 200 innings for the first time in his career. His walk rate dropped to 3.5 and his ERA to 3.47. He had a 3.36 FIP and a 3.63 xFIP.
What has changed for Ubaldo since last season? His strikeout rate is down, but only slightly, and it’s still at a high level. His walk rate is also down below three, at 2.91. His groundball rate is up just a bit, over 54 percent.
Ubaldo is probably the hardest thrower among baseball's starting pitchers (at least until Stephen Strasburg starts on June 8th) and the movement he gets on that pitch allows him to keep the ball on the ground and post lower than normal HR/FB rates. But his improved control has seemingly allowed him to take the next step.
The HR/FB rate is an issue. His HR/FB rate, at the moment, stands at 1.6 percent. The league average is around 10, and most pitchers are in that general vicinity.
I’m willing to believe Ubaldo, because of his blazing fastball and tremendous secondary offerings, can sustain a below league average HR/FB rate, as he’s done the past two seasons. His xFIP, which is around 3.50, is probably not an accurate indication of his ability.
But 1.6 percent is simply unsustainable. He’s given up a mere single home run this season, and if his HR/FB rate were at the league average, he’d have given up about seven to eight. In all likelihood, if we throw luck out the window, Ubaldo would be somewhere in three to five home run range on the year.
Jimenez is not 0.78 ERA good.
No one is. No one has ever been.
The lowest ERA in baseball since 2000 was the 1.74 that Pedro Martinez put up in 2000.
Compare Ubaldo this year to Pedro that year. Ubaldo has a 7.84 K/9; Pedro had an 11.8 K/9. Ubaldo has a 2.91 BB/9; Pedro was at 1.2. Ubaldo has pitched very well, but he’s not having a historic season like Pedro in 2000, or Randy Johnson earlier this decade.
He’s not pitching as well as Johan Santana did in his prime and he’s probably not even pitching as well as Zack Greinke was through two months last season.
Like Greinke, he will likely finish the year with an ERA above two. While it's still a great season, this incredible string of success can't be sustained for an entire season.
The real question is whether Ubaldo has been the best pitcher in baseball so far this season.
Ubaldo leads the league in ERA and wins, but let’s look a bit further than that. He has a 2.62 FIP, which ranks third in baseball, behind Roy Halladay and Francisco Liriano.
Why is it so much higher than his ERA?
Ubaldo’s BABIP stands at .223, a completely unsustainable level. He’s also stranding 92.4 percent of baserunners. The league averages for those two numbers are around .300 and 70 percent, respectively. Ubaldo should have a slightly higher strand rate, because he’s a better pitcher than the league average. He’ll pitch better, regardless of whether there's runners on base or not.
The BABIP is also going to regress, and regress quite a bit. Ubaldo has had a slightly below average BABIP for most of his career, so I wouldn’t be shocked to see it around .280-.290. A .280 BABIP, to me, would show he was getting a bit lucky.
But a guy with his kind of stuff could, potentially, be one of the exceptions. So far in his career, he has shown that to be the case. His BABIP won't stay in the .220s, but a .285 BABIP wouldn’t be shocking.
Ubaldo’s been lucky, but his FIP and xFIP don’t tell the whole story.
Jimenez has no doubt been among the best pitchers in baseball this season. I don’t think his 3.51 xFIP is a fair picture of his ability—I think he’s closer to his 2.62 FIP. He’s going to have a great year, and if he finishes the season with an ERA in the low twos while winning the Cy Young award, I won't complain.
But I think Halladay has been better.
I think Halladay will be better going forward, and the two will finish the year with comparable numbers across the statistical board. I see Ubaldo as a 2.5-3.0 ERA pitcher the rest of the way, finishing the year similar to Greinke's 2009 season.
Jimenez has been great this season.
But that doesn't mean he's baseball's best pitcher. That would be either Halladay or Tim Lincecum.
Heck, he probably hasn’t even been baseball’s best so far.
Halladay has pitched better, in my opinion, and Ubaldo’s miniscule ERA is exacerbated by a fortunate HR/FB rate and BABIP. But it’s been fun to watch one of the best pitchers in baseball start off the season in historic fashion and it will be fun to see where he ends the season.