There probably isn’t a single baseball fan in the country who hasn’t heard Ubaldo Jimenez called “lucky.”
For several weeks now, analysts have devoted countless hours and vast amounts of energy to debunking the theory that Jimenez is—as his 13-1 record and 1.15 ERA suggest—one of the best pitchers in the history of the game.
And with good reason.
There’s no question Jimenez is a talented pitcher entering the prime of what will certainly be an impressive career.
But he’s not an all-time great, and he’s definitely not the greatest of all time.
Jimenez’ 7.8 K/9 rate is impressive (though not legendary—he’s looking up at not only Tim Lincecum and Josh Johnson, but guys like Javier Vazquez and Felipe Paulino), but it’s not enough for us to turn a blind eye to his occasional control problems (3.2 BB/9).
A 2.44 K/BB ratio is nothing to sneeze at, but he's got nothing on Dan Haren (5.05), Roy Halladay (5.63), or the superhuman Cliff Lee (16.75).
As a result, Ubaldo’s FIP (Fielding-Independent Pitching—an estimate of what a pitcher’s ERA would be with a neutral defense, based solely on strikeouts, walks, and home runs allowed) is an impressive, but significantly less godlike 2.93.
That’s nothing to sneeze at, and it’s the seventh-best mark in the game. But it’s more than two-and-a-half times his ridiculous 1.15 ERA.
And that’s before you consider Jimenez’s ludicrously low 3.8 percent HR/FB rate. That’s why his 3.61 xFIP (same as FIP, but with home runs allowed replaced by "expected" home runs allowed, based on the pitcher’s fly ball rate and the league average HR/FB rate) is significantly higher even than his FIP.
And that’s normalized for a pitcher in a neutral park, not one who plays half his games at the launching pad of Coors Field.
Substitute his xFIP for his ERA and ignore the wins (naturally, he wouldn’t have as many if he gave up more runs) and you’ve got a questionable All-Star, not a unanimous Cy Young.
I don't think that Jimenez really deserves an ERA approaching 4.00, but his true talent is probably a lot closer to his xFIP than his ERA.
So where is all this luck coming from?
The fishiest thing about Jimenez’s season so far is his 91.2 percent LOB rate. In other words, fewer than one out of every 11 baserunners he’s allowed have ended up crossing the plate.
The discrepancy between his strand rate and the norm (72 percent) is greater than the overall range of qualified pitchers’ LOB rates in 2008.
It makes sense that a better pitcher would strand more runners; the better the pitcher, the better the chance of making an out, so the other team has fewer opportunities to score.
But Jimenez’ 91.2 percent figure places his performance well outside the reach of logic and fully inside the realm of luck.
Consider the case of John Candelaria, whose 88.8 percent strand rate in 1977 stands as the closest anyone has come to pulling a Ubaldo over a full season since at least 1973. The year before that, his strand rate was 72.5 percent; the year after, it fell to 76.8 percent.
Simply put, you can’t sustain a number like that for long unless you’re playing Xbox.
Then, of course, there is the issue of Jimenez’s BABIP. I’m a firm believer that pitchers have some degree of control over where and how hard the ball is hit. I wouldn’t think it noteworthy if Ubaldo’s hit rate had merely slipped to .290, or .280, maybe even .270.
But if you think the ability to induce weak contact is the reason his hit rate stands at an historically low .239 mark, I’m going to have to stop you right there.
It takes a lot more than talent for a pitcher to sustain a hit rate that low for more than a few weeks.
Since 1989, only one pitcher (Chris Young in 2006-7) has posted a hit rate at or below Jimenez’ current .239 mark over a full season without it ballooning 50 points or more the following year.
Now, some say that Jimenez’ hit rate is explained by the kind of contact he’s induced—his 13.8 percent line-drive rate is the third-lowest in the league, and his 54.9 percent groundball rate ranks fifth. But there’s no refuge in that argument, either.
Looking at tRA, a statistic similar to FIP but which also takes a pitcher’s batted-ball profile into account, Jimenez is expected to give up 3.09 runs per nine innings. That’s not a bad number by any stretch, but it’s not good enough to put Ubaldo in the history books.
So even if you assume that his low line drive and HR/FB rates are the product of sustainable skill and not felicitous chance (statements which many statheads would vociferously rebut), Jimenez could be expected to give up nearly three times as many runs as he is now if he had neutral luck.
There’s no question Ubaldo Jimenez is a good pitcher, or that his is an arm to watch for years to come. But once the winds of fortune stop blowing in from the Coors Field bleachers, no one will mistake him for the best pitcher in the game.