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Monday, April 19, 2010

I told you so... (Ubaldo Jimenez)

In what I hope will be an ongoing series of nasty, sophomoric posts, I'd like to congratulate myself for jumping on the Ubaldo Jimenez bandwagon a long, long time ago.

It's not like I was the one and only, but we Ubaldophiliacs were few and proud in the early stages of his career, as he struggled with his control and the misfortune of pitching in the Mile-High City.

Ubaldo numbered among my top sleepers heading into last season and in May of '09 I enjoined readers to "pick him up pronto" following a trio of quality starts which I cited as "evidence that Ubaldo's moving toward consistent control of his arsenal" and claimed "he has a much, much higher ceiling than Wandy Rodriguez, and possibly as high and Zack Greinke."

From that point forward, including his first three starts in 2010, Ubaldo has gone 15-8 with a 2.98 ERA, a 1.17 WHIP, and 8.32 K/9.

The fact that he surrendered six walks during his no-hitter has prompted some ignorant pundits (a.k.a. those PTI dimwits) to call his performance "flukish."  That's patently ridiculous, on a couple levels.  First off, baserunners are baserunners.  A 1.17 WHIP does not lie.  And, as has been widely reported, Jimenez didn't allow a walk after he went to the stretch full time in the sixth inning, which helped to keep his pitch count reasonable, so that he was still throwing 98 MPH to the last batter of the game.  Jimenez's control problems, which were notable early in his career, have all but vanished at this point.  His BB/9 in 2009 was 3.5, the same as Andy Pettitte's and well within the range of expectation for a guy with his kind of stuff.

Now that I've finished shoulder-slapping, the question is, have we seen the limits of Ubaldo's upside?  Jim Tracy is convinced that he'll be on hand for another Jimenez no-hitter before his tenure with the Rockies is over.  (Tracy is signed through 2012 and Colorado controls Jimenez until 2014.)  A couple months ago I rated him among the "21st-Century Cys," pitchers who I believe, on the model of Greinke and Cliff Lee, could unexpectedly surge to the front of their profession in 2010.  Is there a catch?

I don't believe so, but if there is, it could have to do with fatigue.  Ubaldo racked up 230 inning in '09, including the postseason, which was 31 more than he threw in '07 and '08.  That's hardly a Hamels-esque spike and if he was feeling any ill effects from the workload, it likely would've registered this spring (as it did for Hamels and Ervin Santana in '09, and Jair Jurrjens this year).  It is nonetheless something to keep an eye on, especially considering his pitch counts.  During the Clint Hurdle administration, Ubaldo was on a pretty strict 110-pitch limit.  He surpassed that total only six times in his first sixty starts with the Rockies (that 10%, by the way), and never went above 115.  Since Jim Tracy took over, Ubaldo has topped 110 pitches in 59% of his starts, and has thrown upwards of 120 on three occasions, including last week, when he threw a career-high 128 pitches.

Only four pitchers threw more total pitches in 2009.  They were Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez, Adam Wainwright, and C. C. Sabathia.  What that suggests to me is the class of pitchers that Ubaldo ranks among.  But, one could equally claim that he has not proven his ability to sustain that workload to the extent those other pitchers have.  In 2008, Gil Meche, Edinson Volquez, and Ervin Santana ranked among that class and weren't the same thereafter (indeed, Meche and Volquez have yet to recover).  Jimenez's doubters will need to seem him repeat (and possibly improve upon) his 2009 campaign before they're willing to rate him among the elite starters.

If the National League weren't stacked with high-end pitching talent (Doc Halladay joins perennial Cy candidates Lincecum, Carpenter, and Santana) I might be tempted to more confidently proclaim his candidacy for the trophy.  Nevertheless, I do think he will earn his Cy eventually and certainly will not be among the those "flukish" pitchers like Bud Smith, Jose Jimenez, and Eric Milton who tossed no-hitter and then faded into obscurity.

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