Second-half ascendancy on Ubaldo's mind
Rockies' Opening Day ace refining every aspect of dominant game
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Ubaldo Jimenez, who opens 2011 by facing the D-backs at 2:10 p.m. MT on Friday afternoon at Coors Field, has thrown seven pitches -- four more than most pitchers have any prayer of controlling -- simply because he could.
But truth be told, the 92-94-mph cut fastball he used during the first half of last season almost didn't count. Jimenez recalled using it in the Minors, then he would do it in the middle of games just to see what it would do. Since the right-hander went 15-1 with a 2.20 ERA and a .198 batting-average against from Opening Day until the All-Star break, he had every right to experiment.
Then, the cutter disappeared.
"I probably had too many things on my mind that I just forgot about that thing," Jimenez said.
D-backs 7, Rockies 6 (11 inn.)
WP: Demel LP: Reynolds SV: Putz
But one day, while pitching in a Minor League game with his teammates off for the day, Jimenez brought back the cutter. Not only did it work, but he figured out how it fits with his 100-plus-mph four-seam fastball, reserved only for "when I want to really let it go;' a two-seam, sinking fastball that comes in at 96 mph; a changeup at 86-88 mph, which makes it faster than some guys' fastballs; a curve, a slider and a split-finger pitch.
Jimenez, who went 19-8 with a 2.88 ERA, recorded 214 strikeouts and spun the first no-hitter in Rockies history last year, has perfected a pitch that was nothing more than a lark last year?
"Dangerous," said teammate Carlos Gonzalez, his face breaking into a wide grin.
Jimenez, 27, simply hasn't accepted that the best pitching season in Rockies history was good enough. Jimenez was disappointed with his second-half slowdown, which could partly be blamed to a lack of run support and plain bad luck.
It's understandable to be disappointed in the moment. But it would have been just as easy during a winter of accepting admiration in the Dominican Republic to look at the year as a whole and not feel the sting of not performing to his self-imposed standards in the second half. But that hasn't happened.
With the exception of one bad start when he couldn't find the strike zone, Jimenez essentially did what he wanted in Spring Training. He played with his fastball velocity, sometimes taking a little speed off pitches to give hitters something to think about and make sure he corrected the over-anxious mechanics that dogged him for several midseason starts. In his final Cactus League appearance, when he toyed with the A's for six innings, yielding four hits but no runs, he used secondary pitches when fastballs would have been just fine.
Jimenez's thirst for improvement, it turns out, was fueled by something deeper than his second-half disappointment.
"I've been working on my mechanics since I first signed with the Rockies," said Jimenez, who signed as a 17-year-old in 2001 and has gone from a slight 165 pounds to 210 on a 6-foot-4 frame. "Every year it's getting better and better. Right now I'm getting more compact, and I'm repeating my delivery most of the time."
Jimenez's thirst for refinement is noticeable to those around him.
"Last year, he took a major step forward, but he's going to pitch deeper into games and pitch wire-to-wire the way he did in the first half of last year," said Rockies catcher Chris Iannetta, who has caught Jimenez since 2005, the year he returned after missing much of the previous season with a stress reaction in his shoulder stemming from his unusual mechanics -- that have been modified. "I don't think his stuff is going to change, [he will] just be more efficient."
There was only a slight difference in Jimenez's strikeout-to-walk ratio in the second half, from 2.46 strikeouts per walk to 2.20. His opponents' batting average was higher in the second half, but going from .198 to .223 does not suggest hitters had a field day with him.
Still, those little spikes have Jimenez's attention.
"I want to give my team a chance every time, and at the same time, try not to beat myself," Jimenez said. "In the second half I was walking everybody, and with runners on base, they'd hit bloopers and score runs. I didn't give myself a chance."
If Jimenez is going well, it'll cut down on concessions sales. If his entire battery of pitches is working -- including the cutter, which he says he is controlling better than at any point in his career -- his innings won't be long.
Jimenez's performances were of the must-see variety when he was taking time to experiment. This year, he hopes to display an improved finished product from the beginning of the season to the end.
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Hardball in the Rockies, and follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.