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A change in mechanics could bring Ubaldo back from the grave

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If the Orioles want to hold onto their first place claim, like it or not, Ubaldo Jimenez may be the key. As bad as he’s been, there’s proof he can go from really bad to mediocre.

Do you know what Batman vs. Superman, Independence Day: Resurgence, Zoolander 2 and Ubaldo Jimenez have in common?

Critics were well aware they were probably going to stink in 2016, and thus far, they haven’t disappointed. Though unlike the latter three, Jimenez is still playing in a theatre near you, and it doesn’t appear he’s going to be given the ritual three-month absence before hitting DVD anytime soon.

Still, the O’s find themselves in a miraculous first-place standing atop the AL East fixture despite a 5.15 —FIVE. ONE. FIVE.— starting ERA. Chris Tillman is proving last year’s struggles were more of an aberration than a pattern, and though Kevin Gausman’s 4.15 ERA doesn’t necessarily portrait a breakout, his 3.79 xFIP better illustrates his second full year as a starter.

There’s plenty more to talk about in regards to Yovani Gallardo, Tyler Wilson and Mike Wright, but the Orioles most important piece down the stretch will be Jimenez. While he’s stunk like a pig’s armpit, it doesn’t appear the Orioles are going to be able to part ways with their $13M man anytime soon. The team can’t exactly hide him in the bullpen, trading for the likes of Rich Hill, Drew Pomeranz, Sonny Gray or whoever is either undoable or unfeasible, and the in-house candidates to replace may be better in the long run, but his hefty price tag won’t be usurped by minimal gains.

He’s going to be here whether you, I, or anyone else wants it, so why not try to find a way to maximize whatever value he has left?

Though Jimenez has never been able to find consistency in years of lost velocity, he still has enough natural movement on all of his pitches to be effective. His abysmal numbers, or history of terribleness may not suggest it, but getting back to league-average over the course of the second-half is certainly a possibility.

Not a severe change but enough to cause problems, Jimenez’s release point has been a source of issues over the course of the year. Ubaldo relies on side-to-side movement on his fastball, as well as depth and tilt to his slider and splitter. While a more vertical release point works for, say, Chris Tillman, Jimenez would seem to benefit from a slightly more three-quarters delivery.

Such a release point has reduced the bite on all of his pitches.

Simply, the numbers above zero indicate more left-right movement, with pitches falling below zero guiding right-left. The higher Jimenez’s release point has become, we see a slider that’s falling more flat, a sinker (or two-seam fastball) losing it’s fade, with his splitter doing the same. When you’re average fastball velocity sits just a tick over 90 MPH, utilizing a running fastball, a sweeping slider and a diving splitter is how you survive. It’s unclear whether or not Jimenez has become more upright as a fault of his own, but the Orioles do have a history of fixing deliveries in such a way.

If you have the time, watch highlights of Kevin Gausman in college compared to today, and you see a guy whose entire delivery has been cleaned up tremendously, much to do with him becoming taller in his release point and overall delivery of the baseball. Even Chris Tillman is much more refined in his mechanics compared to only three years ago with the same fundamental idea. Again, this may be Ubaldo being Ubaldo, ever confused how to harness his 6’5 stature, but it’s a continual detriment.

Jimenez’s growing flatness only adds to the madness because, when he’s right, he has a pretty good two-seam fastball.

Yeah, the ball ends up over the middle of the plate in a 2-2 count, but owning such tremendous movement on the fastball can afford Jimenez the risk of working over the plate. Marcus Semien sees a fastball off the outside corner, and before he can recognize the impending strike, it’s too late. Strange enough, Jimenez has ditched the two-seam fastball for much of the year.

According to PITCHf/x, Jimenez has only thrown 27.1% two-seam fastballs compared to 39.4% a season ago. He’s “relied” on the four-seamer at 30.9%, tossing nearly seven percent more true fastballs than tailing fastballs than he did in 2015. Naturally, two-seam fastballs don’t run as much for guys who throw at 12 o’clock, but Jimenez needs his go-to pitch. Of all the Oriole pitching philosophies we’ve grown to scoff at, this is one I certainly don’t agree with. Restricting Jimenez from his bread and butter has left him flaming as burnt toast.

Again, we can’t be entirely certain Jimenez has undergone this transformation on his own or whether or not we’re seeing a midseason mechanical tweak gone awry, but Jimenez can’t, and hasn’t, survived without movement in the four quadrants of the strike zone.

Jimenez’s 90.2 MPH average fastball is the lowest he’s ever had in what’s now his 10th big league season, and it’s never been more important than now for Ubaldo to pitch under the guise of full comfortability. I’d imagine he sees his arsenal of pitches not fading or sinking with any vigor, only adding to the timidity. Ubaldo struggles enough to throw strikes, and coupling a fear of the strike zone has only added to the misery.

If that means letting him get back to full weirdness in his delivery, letting him put his arms over his head mid-windup, whatever. With a 12.5 BB%, 1.97 WHIP and .380 BABIP, what are you really risking?

Jimenez may not be able to blow people away with his fastball anymore, but regaining whatever it is that allows him to steer the baseball with vigor, that’s where he needs to be. If Jimenez can once again trust his delivery and play around with his release point, the movement should come back. Jimenez pitching with a reputation of effectively wild, rather than just wild, can open up a lot of doors for him down the stretch. A 2-0 fastball with extra run can go from a home run to a pop up. A 2-1 slider with that little extra goes from contact to perhaps a swing and a miss. Maybe hitters can’t fully expect a two-strike splitter if they have to respect all of his pitches. A lot can happen if his stuff goes from bad to even just OK.

The Orioles don’t need Jimenez to suddenly replicate a Cy Young caliber starter, he just needs to be average. Whether or not it happens is a different story altogether, but the evidence is there that change for the better can happen.

But when it comes to Ubaldo, he truly is a box of chocolates.