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Ubaldo Jimenez’s 2017 Orioles season is still a complete mystery

It’s difficult to predict how Ubaldo Jimenez will perform in his start tonight and for the rest of the 2017 season. Have you heard that before?

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Boston Red Sox Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Three things are certain in the life of an Orioles fan — death, taxes and being completely puzzled when it comes to Ubaldo Jimenez. There aren’t many things that the numbers can’t tell us these days, as trends and split stats alone tend to shed light on most of what we need to know about future performance. But for Jimenez, there’s a constant question mark.

Just when you think you have everything figured out about baseball, Ubaldo shows up and pitches every five days with a new storyline to be written every time he leaves the mound.

It’s frustrating, but that’s about exactly the time when he puts it all together and makes you forget all about the difficulties and setbacks. That’s been the story of his career, and as the trends tried to tell us before the season, that’s exactly how 2017 has gone as well.

Watching Ubaldo on a weekly basis tells you about everything you need to know, but the visual of his results in starts this season is just too “that’s so Ubaldo” to leave out:

  • 4/7 vs. NYY: 4.1 IP, 5 ER
  • 4/12 vs. BOS: 4.1 IP, 5 ER
  • 4/19 vs. CIN: 7.2 IP, 0 ER
  • 4/24 vs. TB: 3.1 IP, 3 ER
  • 4/29 vs. NYY: 3.1 IP, 6 ER
  • 5/9 vs WAS: 7.2 IP, 4 ER (1 ER through seven IP)

It’s a total encapsulation of who he is! There are the two bad starts followed by one world-beating performance — and then two more poor outings followed by a brilliant start against Washington.

Even after six starts this year, there isn’t a person even within the Orioles clubhouse who knows what Jimenez is going to be in 2017. And according to the numbers, there’s most definitely no way we truly can know how this season is going to play out.

Check this out: with his 6.15 ERA, hitters have just a .237 BABIP (averages on balls in play) against Jimenez, an unbelievably low number! Seriously — Clayton Kershaw has a .266 BABIP against. And since that number generally almost always returns to average (near .300) over a full season, you’d think that number says that Jimenez has actually been lucky to start the year.

However, in typical Ubaldo strangeness, one look at his 2.1 HR/9 number and one can begin to wonder whether he’s been unlucky in those at-bats. After all, if hitters aren’t connecting particularly well on balls in play, why are the home run numbers up from his last three-years average of 0.9 HR/9?

It all comes back to the conundrum that is figuring out Ubaldo. Did we really expect it to make sense?

Ultimately, we’ll have to wait to see how the season progresses in terms of barreling up balls, but the most concerning trend that exists in Jimenez’s game comes in terms of throwing strikes.

This year, he’s walked 20 batters in 33.1 innings pitched, an early-season 5.3 BB/9 rate that can’t possibly continue to exist if he wants to finish the season in the rotation. What’s worse is that hitters seem to have a pretty simple time keying in during their at-bats, as shown by Jimenez’s O-swing% (percentage of pitches offered at outside the zone):

Jimenez O-Swing%

Year O-Swing%
Year O-Swing%
2014 22.7%
2015 27.4%
2016 26.5%
2017 18.7%

When the opposing batter does swing at the pitch outside the zone, they’re making contact at a rate of around 73 percent. That’d be quite the jump from the numbers against Jimenez in the past two seasons (66.8% in ‘15 and 65.9% in ‘16).

What works, and what continues to the the backbone of Jimenez’s performances, is the splitter. He’s tossing it just around 15 percent of the time, but hitters have just a .182 average against the pitch this year. It works beautifully with his slider (perhaps his best pitch in 2017 with a .000 average against), providing the diversity needed with a mediocre 89-91 MPH fastball.

Tonight’s start against Detroit is important as every Ubaldo start is, but it’s particularly difficult to overreact when considering Jimenez’s track record. He might be hanging onto his rotation spot by a thread or two, but every Cy Young-caliber start in between the rough starts buys him a few more weeks of time.

It’s the life of Jimenez, and thus the life of all of us watching him toe the rubber on a nightly basis.

The mystery continues, and there’s just no telling what’s coming down the line.