Jimenez, Lowe returning to form could be a big boost
By Andy Nichols
February 17, 2012
Since the year 2000 there have been twelve World Series Champions. Of those twelve teams, eight of them ranked in the top five in their respective leagues in ERA during that year's regular season. The only teams to fall out of the top five: The 2011 and 2006 St. Louis Cardinals, the 2003 Florida (now Miami) Marlins, and the 2000 New York Yankees. Of the other eight teams, the 2010 San Francisco Giants, the 2007 Boston Red Sox, and the 2005 Chicago White Sox each led their leagues in regular season ERA.
It's no secret that pitching wins championships in MLB. The lines in Vegas and sportsbook reviews favor this every year. A solid pitching staff can make up for a lackluster offense; as seen in 2010 with San Fransisco.
Two crucial pieces to a potential World Series run for the Indians are starting pitchers Ubaldo Jimenez and Derek Lowe. Both starters are coming off of remarkably subpar seasons by their standards, and will need rebound seasons, and then some, in order to help the Tribe reach their ultimate goal.
The eye test and standard pitching stats don't always tell the whole story. There are several reasons for why a pitcher could have a down year; from injury or mechanical problems, to a lack of confidence or even personal issues. With that, I decided to take a deeper look into the stats not always seen by the naked eye in order to see if bounce-back seasons should be expected from Jimenez and Lowe.
We'll start with Jimenez. The 6'4” righty spent much of 2011 with the Rockies before being sent to Cleveland at the trade deadline. During the 2011 season, Jimenez went a combined 10-13 with a 4.68 ERA. In his 11 starts after joining the Tribe, Jimenez was 4-4 with a 5.10 ERA, but for the purpose of this piece I will be looking at his 2011 season as a whole since he struggled from the the outset of the season, not just upon joining the Cleveland rotation.
Despite a dip in velocity (nearly 2 MPH), Jimenez put up his second best season in terms of K/9 in 2011. His 8.60 K/9 is slightly less than his 8.69 K/9 average during his Cy Young-caliber 2010 season. His 3.73 BB/9 rate was also right on par with his 2010 average of 3.74. Two major differences between 2011 and Jimenez's past seasons were his HR/9 rate and his BABIP (batting average on balls in play). Jimenez gave up an average of .50 HR/9 in 2008, .54 in 2009, and .41 in 2010. That 2010 number nearly doubled in 2011, when Jimenez gave up an average of .81 HR/9. Also in 2011, opposing batters hit .314 on balls hit in play against Jimenez, but prior to 2011 hitters had never had a BABIP over .300 against Jimenez. That spike in BABIP could offer some hope that Jimenez simply didn't have much luck on his side in 2011 when hitters put the ball in play.
One telling stat that isn't just from 2011 is the pitchers yearly decline in GB% (groundball percentage). In 2008, the first full season for Jimenez, he had a GB% of 54.4%. That fell to 52.5% in 2009, 48.8% in 2010, and 47.2% last season. That increase in flyballs led to a 9.3% HR/FB (homerun per flyballs), nearly doubling his average of 5.1% from 2010. Balls can't leave the park if they're hit on the ground, so getting back to pounding the lower part of the zone and getting his GB% back to 2008 and 2009 levels could go a long way for Jimenez and the Indians.
Since 2008, Jimenez has been fairly consistent with his pitch selection. In 2011 he threw his fastball 61.7% of the time, his slider 14.4%, his curveball 7%, and his changeup 16.9%. These numbers are all very similar to his past numbers. In 2010, when Jimenez went 19-8 with a 2.88 ERA, he threw his fastball 61.4% of the time, his slider 15.4%, his curveball 9.3%, and his changeup 13.8%. What all of this could mean is that a full offseason with the Tribe and their trainers, as well as staying healthy, may be all Jimenez needs to regain his top of the rotation form.
Next up is the veteran sinker-baller Derek Lowe. In 2011, Lowe was a disastrous 9-17 with a 5.05 ERA while pitching for the Atlanta Braves. Just days after the conclusion of the World Series, Lowe was traded to the Indians for minor league pitcher Chris Jones. The 6'6” righty now figures to fill a spot in the back end of the Indians 2012 rotation.
Durability has never been a question for Lowe, as he has thrown no less than 182 innings in a season since becoming a full time starter in 2002. What's important for Lowe is to make sure those innings are a little more valuable to the Tribe in 2012 than they were to the Braves in 2011.
Even with Lowe's ugly 2011 stats the 39-year-old still holds a career record of 166-146 with a 3.94 ERA. Despite the inevitable dip in velocity as pitchers age, Lowe actually put up his second best K/9 rate of his career as a starter. His 6.59 K/9 rate last year is second only to his 6.64 rate from 2007 when Lowe was a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers. This stat may possibly show that Lowe has become craftier with his pitches as he's aged and doesn't need the high velocity in order to keep opposing hitters off balance.
Just like Jimenez, Lowe may have been the recipient of some tough luck once hitters put the ball in play. Opposing batters had a BABIP of .327 off of Lowe in 2011. That number is tied for the highest BABIP in his career, although it isn't much of a spike from his past seasons.
When it comes to WAR (wins above replacement), Lowe's 2011 mark of 2.5 is only slightly lower than his 2.7 WAR from 2010 when he won 16 games, and his 2.6 WAR from 2009 when he won 15 games. You may ask, how was Lowe's WAR only slightly lower in 2011 when he won only 9 games and lost 17 than it was in 2009 and 2010 when he won a combined 31 games? Well, it's important to remember that the win-loss statistic isn't always a very good indication of how a pitcher performed. Remember that in 2011 Justin Masterson won only three more games than Lowe did despite having an ERA of only 3.21. The reasoning for Lowe's scary 2011 win-loss record could be due to the fact that the Braves only averaged 3.1 runs per game during his starts. That run support, or lack-thereof, was the worst of Lowe's long career.
Lowe has also started to change the way he pitches as he's aged. In 2011, he threw his sinking fastball only 50% of the time, which was down considerably from his 63.9% average from 2010. Lowe has also started to throw his slider more (25.3% of the time in 2011, 16.1% in 2010), as well as his changeup (15.7% in 2011, 15.5% in 2010, but only 4.2% in 2009). Although Lowe still induces several groundballs, his 59 GB% is not quite what it used to be in the early-to-mid 2000s when he was inducing groundballs at a rate in the mid-60s. This information could show that Lowe simply just needs to get back to his days of pounding hitters with sinker after sinker.
The Indians have put a lot of stock into Jimenez and Lowe for the 2012 season. Although these numbers may frighten some readers, many of them show that these two pitchers are a couple of minor adjustments away from returning to their old form. And the old forms of Ubaldo Jimenez and Derek Lowe is just what the doctor ordered for the Indians.
Statistics courtesy of www.fangraphs.com
While his ERA increased, by close to 2 runs in '11, his FIP rose only a little over 1/2 run to 3.67 and his xFIP rose only .11 to 3.71. If his ERA can approximate his FIP/xFIP of '11, he should be just fine.
The increase in Jimenez's BABIP from 2.71 to 3.14 wasn't significant. A BABIP of .290-300 is average for a pitcher, so I would expect Jimenez's BABIP to fall slightly this year.
Jimenez's GB rate has nothing to do with his HR/FB rate, but does impact his HR/9 rate. The increase of Jimenez's HR/FB rate from 5.1% to 9.3% was significant, but nevertheless is about average for a pitcher. It's my understanding that a pitcher has little control over his HR/FB rate. Rather, such rate is more a matter of chance. So, it does not follow that improved pitching performance will cause Jimenez's HR/FB rate to fall.