There’s been lots and lots of bad pitching seen by all when Ubaldo Jimenez has toed the rubber in 2016. You don’t need me to tell you that. His rarely-repeatable unorthodox mechanics have resulted in some ugly numbers: a 7.38 ERA and 5.51 walks per nine innings (the worst and second-worst marks in baseball, respectively, for any pitcher this year with at least 60 innings).
The walk number – completely controllable by Jimenez – jumps out most. He’s struggled with issuing free passes for much of his career, but when he’s found a way to limit them, he’s mostly been good. (Since 2012, in seasons in which he’s walked more than four batters per nine innings, his ERA is 4.81 or higher each year. In the two seasons when he’s kept his walks under four per nine innings, his ERAs have been 3.30 and 4.11.)
But then there’s that ERA. 7.38. Worst in the majors. And I didn’t even mention his .380 batting average allowed on balls in play, also worst in the big leagues this year (again, for anyone with 60-or-more innings). This is where bad luck – and somewhat-historic bad luck – may have come into play for Jimenez.
Let’s start with the BABIP. At least in theory, the amount of hard-hit balls allowed should somewhat correlate to how many balls in play become hits (the harder the ball is hit, the greater the chance it has of becoming a hit – especially on line drives and fly balls). And thanks to the Statcast data that is now available, we can measure the speed of batted balls Ubaldo has allowed.
Not every batted ball is measured yet, but there’s enough of a sample size available to make things interesting. For any pitcher with at least 150 “batted ball events” recorded against him in 2016 (Jimenez has 229), Ubaldo’s average exit velocity allowed – 89.7 mph – is 54th-highest out of 141 pitchers. Not great, but certainly not league-worst either like his BABIP might suggest. In fact, the average exit velocity for Jimenez is virtually identical to the 89.8 mph posted by his teammate, Chris Tillman.
Fielding-independent pitching (FIP) – which uses only walks, strikeouts and home runs to measure what ERA would look like if a pitcher were to have experienced league-average results on balls in play – also indicates an element of extreme bad luck for Jimenez in 2016, almost historically so. The difference between Ubaldo’s ERA (7.38) and his FIP (4.92) is 2.47. To put that into context, it’s the 10th-largest gap between the two metrics out of more than 10,500 single-season performances of 80 innings or more since 1954. And in case you were wondering what the 17th-largest single-season “ERA minus FIP” difference was (and I know you were), it’s Jake Arrieta’s 2012 in Baltimore: 6.20 ERA vs. 4.05 FIP in 114 2/3 innings.
So, Ubaldo Jimenez is giving up tons of hits this season on balls in play, but the batted balls he’s allowed don’t seem to have been hit excessively hard in aggregate. His ERA is the worst in baseball, but another metric that calculates expected ERA using only elements directly controllable by the pitcher evaluates him far better. And the gap between his actual run-prevention and what would usually be expected is historically large.
Has Ubaldo Jimenez been a bad pitcher in 2016? Absolutely. Has he also suffered from some pretty extreme bad luck? It would appear so.