Is the real Ubaldo Jimenez the first- or second-half version?
Once upon a time, selecting a Colorado Rockies' starting pitcher on draft day was like consuming curdled milk. No matter how pitching-starved your team was (or how unappetizing your moisture-less Frosted Flakes looked), you just didn't do it. Simple as that. The thin Colorado air made Coors Field a launching pad for hitters and, subsequently, a nightmare for pitchers. The substantial risk that came with drafting a Rockies' starter simply wasn't worth the potential middling reward.
Times have since changed. Coors Field is still a hitter-friendly venue, but it hasn't been the same danger zone for pitchers since the humidor was introduced in 2002. Consider that there were 1,085 runs scored and 268 home runs hit at Coors Field in 2001. By comparison, there were 858 runs scored and 187 home runs hit in 2010. That's a difference of 227 runs and 81 home runs. Obviously, many factors should be taken into account when comparing two seasons -- team personnel being the most obvious one -- but at the very least we can get a glimpse of how Coors Field has evolved over the last decade. It's still not an ideal place to pitch, fly ball hurlers in particular have little margin for error, but saying the name of a Rockies starting pitcher on draft day is no longer taboo.
No pitcher demonstrates how Colorado pitchers can be fantasy-worthy more than Ubaldo Jimenez, who finished the 2010 season as the No. 4-ranked pitcher on the ESPN Player Rater, behind only Roy Halladay, Adam Wainwright and Felix Hernandez. Jimenez set career bests across the board last season, winning 19 games with a 2.88 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and 214 strikeouts, third most in the National League.
However, as you can infer from the question above, last season wasn't 33 straight starts of dominance for the hard-throwing right-hander. In 18 first-half outings, Jimenez was undoubtedly the best pitcher in baseball, going 15-1 with a 2.20 ERA and 1.05 WHIP. That memorable first half included throwing a no-hitter against the Atlanta Braves on April 17, allowing no more than two runs in a game through his first 12 starts and being named the National League's starting pitcher in the All-Star Game.
The season's second half wasn't nearly as kind, though, as he won just four games and posted a 3.80 ERA and 1.30 WHIP in 15 starts. Not terrible numbers, by any means, but a far cry from Ubaldo's pre-break exploits.
The first- and second-half splits don't tell the whole story, however. A look at Jimenez's month-by-month splits shows us the roller-coaster season that produced multiple sub-1.00 ERA months and multiple months of ERAs north of 4.30.
As we can see, Jimenez pitched his best early in the season, when he posted sub-1.00 ERAs in April and May. Over his first 14 starts, in particular, he went 13-1 with a 1.04 ERA and 0.64 WHIP. That early-season dominance brought comparisons to Bob Gibson, who posted a 1.12 ERA in 1968. Unfortunately, when we do the math, that means he went 6-7 with a 4.53 ERA and 1.32 WHIP in his final 19 starts, including a 5.1 base-on-balls-per-nine-innings rate in September. Not exactly fantasy-ace-type numbers, huh?
Thus, evaluating Jimenez for 2011 is tricky.
When looking at Jimenez's 2010 season as a whole, we see plenty of positives. His 8.7 strikeouts-per-nine-innings rate was an improvement over 2009's 8.2 mark. He allowed fewer line drives than ever before -- 19.5 percent in 2009 to 16.2 percent last season. And according to Fangraphs.com, batters not only swung at a larger percentage of his pitches outside the strike zone (29.1 percent) compared to 2009 (23.8 percent), but they also swung and missed those pitches more often, which is part of the reason his strikeout rate increased last year.
On the negative side, Jimenez's walk rate went up slightly last year (3.7) compared to 2009 (3.5). He allowed more fly balls (35 percent) than he did in 2008 (28 percent) and 2009 (27.9 percent), which is obviously not a good thing for a Coors Field pitcher. And his .271 batting average against on balls in play and 5.1 percent home run-to-fly ball rate indicate he benefited from some good luck.
All told, Jimenez was definitely a better pitcher in 2010 than in 2009, but he wasn't that much better. The he was one of three National League pitchers with 19 or more wins boosted his value. However, as we all know, wins are difficult to predict, and expecting another 18-plus wins this year may be a stretch. The Rockies were barely better than a .500 team last year, and no one would bat an eye if the right-hander's win total fell to the 12-to-15 range this season, which would be in line with his 2008 and 2009 totals.
When looking at the first- and second-half versions of Jimenez last year, the second-half one more closely resembles what we saw in 2009, when he won 15 games with a 3.47 ERA and 1.23 WHIP. In fact, Jimenez's 2.3 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 2010 was identical to his 2009's mark. Also consider that last year's 3.10 FIP (fielder independent pitching score) wasn't far off from his 3.36 2009 mark and that his 3.73 xFIP (expected FIP) last season was actually slightly worse than 2009 (3.63).
To be clear, Jimenez's first 14 starts last year aren't being dismissed or disregarded. They were truly outstanding, and if anything they showcase his upside. And knowing he holds that potential may give the 27-year-old an edge over a guy such as Chris Carpenter, who is one spot ahead of Jimenez in our starting pitcher rankings. However, Ubaldo's abrupt fall back to earth following his hot start makes us hesitant to predict a repeat. Let's face it, when we look at Jimenez's numbers the past few seasons, those 14 dominant starts to begin 2010 are the outlier.
If you draft Jimenez this season, you're getting a top-tier hurler who, as we saw last year, has the potential to be one of the game's premier starting pitchers when he's at his best. However, when setting your expectations for 2011, you're better off projecting something closer to 2009. That still makes Ubaldo a top-20 starting pitcher this year -- just not necessarily a top-10 one.