View from the Rockpile: Musings From a Mile High Along the Journey to Rocktober
Opening Day 2011. Not a cloud in the downtown Denver sky. Ubaldo Jimenez on the mound for the hometown Rockies. A whistle while you work, picture perfect pre-spring day at Coors Field.
Not so fast.
Colorado Rockies faithful could only cringe with memories of Rockies past as Jimenez's feared upper-90s fastball took the day off and his wide range of secondary pitches went AWOL. The Diamondbacks smacked Jimenez around for six runs (five earned) on seven hits, including two home runs, as the Rockies lost an Opening Day thriller 7-6 to the Diamondbacks in extra innings.
Various Diamondbacks, including proud owner of one of the dingers off Jimenez, Miguel Montero, commented after the game that not only did Ubaldo's fastball lack the usual heat, but it also didn't have the action, the jump that has made him one of the most feared and unhittable pitchers in the game today. As a result, Jimenez only earned a single strikeout over six innings, and the Rockies got rocked.
Ironically enough, Rockies fans, players and executives breathed at least a half-sigh of relief at the news that the cause of Ubaldo's off day may have been a torn cuticle on his throwing thumb. Only a half-sigh, of course, because it's never good news when your ace and Cy Young candidate ends up on the 15-day disabled list after one start.
How many games will Ubaldo Jimenez win in 2011?
But that's exactly where the Rockies found themselves. As much as Rockies faithful would like to ignore the whispers, the doubts in their own minds, the question lingers: Who is Ubaldo Jimenez?
Is he the second coming of Juan Marichal, of Bob Gibson, much as pundits labeled him over the first half of 2010?
The guy who tossed the first Rockies no-hitter in franchise history? Who tornadoed through the National League from April to June, with an 11-1 record, a gnat-sized ERA of 0.93 and two separate strings of three straight starts without a run allowed on his way to the nod as NL starter at the 2010 All-Star Game?
Or is he merely the out-of-control and inconsistent youngster from the D.R., as he proved to be over the second half of 2010? Just another Pedro Martinez wannabe?
Is he the enigma who lost his focus and killer instinct to end 2010 on a down note, failing to win 20 games after believers and doubters alike dared to wonder out loud if Jimenez might reach the inhuman plateau of 30 wins in a single season?
Is he just something in between? Like Pikes, did he already peak?
One thing is as certain as the Colorado altitude: Jimenez can no longer take anyone by surprise. Hitters league-wide label Jimenez's stuff as the nastiest thing since cow pies. MLB selected Jimenez as one of three player spokesmen for its "MLB Always Epic" campaign to kick off the 2011 season (along with Felix Hernandez and the Beard itself, Brian Wilson).
Comparisons to Marichal and Gibson will do that. Making hitters look silly time and again has a way of catching their attention.
In addition, well-respected baseball writers, from Baseball Prospectus 2011 to the sabermetricians at FanGraphs and beyond, have predicted that Jimenez will have a slight fall-off from the 2010 campaign that earned him a respectable third-place finish in the NL Cy Young competition.
Sabermetricians point out that although Ubaldo nearly defied description by keeping his 2010 ERA below 3.00 (2.88 to be exact), his xFIP in 2010 stood nearly a full point higher (3.60), thus predicting an uptick in his 2011 ERA.
Yet, be warned that marking Jimenez a one-hit wonder could be a far greater mistake than pitching with a torn cuticle. Carlos Gonzalez, for one, has remarked that despite his cucumber-salad-cool exterior, there is nary a more competitive man in the Rockies clubhouse than Jimenez.
Jimenez reckons to be nastier than ever before.
Nastier than the youngster whose electric arm caused a complete power outage at Coors Field during a 2007 playoff game against the Philadelphia Phillies amidst the swirling winds of downtown Denver in Rocktober.
Nastier than the 2010 Jimenez who won 19 games, struck out 214 and tossed what Baseball Prospectus has labeled the greatest season by a Rockies starting pitcher ever. Yes, ever.
A patient front office and superb starts in Pittsburgh from Tweedle-5 and Tweedle-6 of the Rockies starting rotation (Esmil Rogers and Greg Reynolds) have allowed Jimenez the chance to rehabilitate his injury in peace, without incessant media stories questioning his toughness and dooming the Rockies to failure in his absence.
That is, of course, until the bullies of the NL West, the reigning World Series champion San Francisco Giants, torched the Rockies in an 8-1 victory behind the magic and chicanery of two-time NL Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum on Monday night at a blustery Coors Field, with the Giants simultaneously exposing Rogers for what he really is: a back-of-the-rotation starter at best, capable of pulling out a gem here, there and every so often.
Put better: Rogers (and Reynolds, for that matter) ain't no Ubaldo Jimenez. The million-dollar question in 2011, however, is whether Jimenez can or will be Jimenez.
Like a certain famous cuticle, public opinion is torn as to which Jimenez will storm the Rockies in 2011. Entering Tuesday's long-awaited second start for the Rockies ace, the resilient Colorado baseball club stands at 12-4, alone atop the NL West for more than a hiccup for the first time since dental floss.
There is no split decision on one point, however: The Rockies will go as far as the rocket residing on Jimenez's right arm can launch them.