It’s January 5th and Alex Anthopoulos has done absolutely nothing to improve the Blue Jays starting pitching staff for 2014. Jays fans are getting antsy to say the least. Although the rotation will likely be an improvement over the 2013 version even if no moves are made, I think it’s fair to say that it will be next-to-impossible to make the playoffs without significant rotation help. The “stove” has been very cold for over a month now, and it remains this way, but Ken Rosenthal provided us with this tidbit the other night, about the possibility of the Jays signing a free agent starting pitcher.
The Blue Jays, quiet for much of the offseason, still figure to acquire one and possibly two starting pitchers once the logjam caused by Tanaka starts to resolve.
The Jays are a leading candidate to sign either Santana or Jimenez; they have two protected first-round picks, Nos. 9 and 11, and would sacrifice only a second-rounder and the accompanying pool money for one of those free-agent right-handers.
That sounds promising, and there’s no questioning the source, as Ken’s the best in the business. I don’t think there’s much question that if signed, either of these guys would be an improvement over what the Jays have right now. It seems that these 2 have been categorized together a lot. This is because they are both seeking similar amounts of money, so there wouldn’t be too much of a difference in that department. Which poses the question; who would be the better signing, Jimenez or Santana? Let’s find out..
The Case for Ervin Santana
Santana had an incredible year in 2013 with the Kansas City Royals. This was unexpected, as it seemed his career was quickly deteriorating after a horrid 2012 with the Angels. His 2013 ERA was 3.24, which was good for 9th in the American league. Of course, ERA can be flawed, as it’s the result of the pitcher, his fielders, and the ballpark that he is playing in, along with some luck. There are other measures that we can look at, one of those measures is ERA+. ERA+ adjusts for the ballpark that you play in, which, in Santana’s case, is the somewhat pitcher friendly Kauffman Stadium. He was good for a 127 ERA+, good for 8th in the AL, just 4 points behind his teammate James Shields. He was really one of the elite American League Starters.
You’re not going to see Santana strike out a ton of hitters. His 6.87 K/9 is nowhere near the elites. He pitches to contact, with a fairly balanced 1.41 GB/FB ratio. This is actually a part of Santana’s game that has changed over the years.This improvement is largely credited to his increased usage of his 2-seam fastball. His GB/FB ratio in 2010 was 0.83, and it has steadily increased each year. Generally, more ground balls is a good thing (it is), but Santana has not been able to regulate the home runs, even with the increased ground balls! This is the result of a high HR/FB%, which is the percentage of flyballs you give up that turn into home runs. Santana’s was 12.4% in 2013, good for 12th in the American League. He was behind some scrubs, but also some very good pitchers. (Darvish, Dickey, Sabathia, Lackey, Porcello). All of the aforementioned pitchers play in homer prone ballparks, whereas this wasn’t the case with Santana, which makes you wonder if playing in Toronto might not be ideal for him(it wouldn’t be).
The fact that Santana gives up a lot of home runs is likely directly related to the fact that Santana throws a lot of sliders. In fact, he throws more than any other pitcher in the MLB. The slider is a pitch that’s rather homer prone, and is bound to hang up in the zone on occasion. In terms of the effectiveness of the slider, it is considered an above-average one. Fangraphs uses a metric called wSL to determine the value of a pitch, Santana’s slider was good for 10th in baseball in that category last year, although that isn’t a metric that has been able to gain much ground in the sabermetric community. Many believe Baseball Prospectus’ tAV is a more accurate metric for a pitch’s value, which puts Santana’s slider 29th in baseball, which is still above average, but is perhaps a more realistic gage on the pitch. Many have urged Santana to use his slider less in order to limit the home runs, but I’d oppose that, considering the ineffectiveness of his other pitches (the fastball and change). It is also possibly worth noting that according to his agent, Santana has developed a “devastating” new pitch this offseason. Details have yet to emerge about the pitch though…
Mechanics with Chris Sherwin!
Santana has a slight twist in his mechanics which helps with torque and momentum. Combined with hiding the ball in his glove longer than usual, it helps create deception as well. Despite the occasional arm slot issues, he does a great job at repeating mechanics from the windup and the stretch. He doesn’t fall into slide step issues and keeps his leg kick with runners on base. This is vital for repeating his mechanics. He occasionally struggles with different arm slots for different pitches which does affect consistency. A more upright posture could help here but that leads to other issues with velocity, command etc. He has some injury red flags but they aren’t mind blowing. He has some lag in his arm and doesn’t lock his wrist creating more pronation to supination back to pronation than is needed. It’s not scary late though and he does a good job at rolling the elbow to lead with his forearm. He pronates very well through his release and has been able to escape major elbow injuries over the years with minor ones.
The Case for Ubaldo Jimenez
It’s funny, both of these pitchers are just one year removed from nightmare years; years that many thought would be career-ending. Jimenez carried his 2012 failures into the first half of 2013, with a 4.56 ERA, largely caused by a nightmare April. It was mid-June when the righty started to figure it out, and as soon as the all-star break hit, he turned it to another level. Jimenez posted an ERA under 2 in the second half, and gave up only 3 of his 16 home runs during that time span. He was back to being an elite pitcher in the second half, specifically when September hit, when he posted a 1.09 ERA, 11.1 K/9, 1.52 BB/9, 1.09 FIP, and a 7.29 K/BB ratio. I think it’s safe to say that if he posted similar numbers in the first half to what he posted in the second half, he would be very much in the Cy Young conversation.
Fangraphs says a league average Ground ball% is 44%, Jimenez’s 2013 GB% was 43.9. Fangraphs says a league average fly ball% is 36%. Jimenez’s 2013 FB% was 36.3. Fangraphs says a league average LD% is 20%. Jimenez’s 2013 LD% was 19.8. Now, these numbers don’t make Jimenez a league average pitcher, they show that he doesn’t give up an unusual amount of ground balls, fly balls, or line drives. This actually might be ideal for the Jays, as usually you’d much prefer a strict ground ball guy, but with the infield they run out there daily, a balance could be nice. Of course, you don’t want too many fly balls either, not as long as Melky Cabrera’s chasing down balls in left.
Ervin Santana is to home runs what Ubaldo Jimenez is to walks. They have been the killer for Ubaldo. Even with the second half resurgence, the walks were very much present, and have been for his whole career. Since 2009, Ubaldo is 3rd in the MLB in highest BB/9, behind Ricky Romero and Francisco Liriano. Like Santana’s home runs, walks are something that comes with the territory if you want to sign Jimenez. I think walks, especially in the Rogers Centre, are a little bit easier to deal with than the dingers, as frustrating as they may be.
In terms of a pitch breakdown, Jimenez uses his fastball most. He threw his slider 25% of the time in 2013, far more than he had thrown it in any year prior, and it brought him great success, getting batters to whiff 30% of the time on it. He practically abandoned his curve, a pitch that was used often when he was younger, and substituted it with the increased usage of his splitter. I was surprised to see how much Jimenez changed in 2013 when it came to pitch usage. That could relate to his resurgence.
Mechanics Breakdown… (Again from Chris Sherwin!)
There is so much misunderstanding when it comes to Ubaldo’s mechanics. I could write 3000 words on the subject but I will keep this pretty simple. His unconventional mechanics have kept him healthy over the years. The biggest issue with his mechanics aren’t injury red flags, it is his inconsistency. At the start of last season he was bouncing his throwing arm off his hip ever so slightly when separating from his glove. This slight change in arm action destroys arm speed and mapping. He also had a problem of opening up his front shoulder causing his whole body to fly open and almost fall over. He eventually fixed these issues in the second half of the season. His delivery is so complex and these inefficiencies are more than likely going to keep creeping up on him. He is going to have to work very hard with his coaches to make sure he doesn’t fall into similar traps.
Both of these pitchers bring great risk, but then again, what free agent pitcher brings no risk? Santana, while more consistent than Jimenez, wouldn’t be an ideal fit for the Rogers Centre, with the already high HR/FB rate likely to significantly increase in the AL East. Also, Jimenez brings more strikeouts to the table, which is favourable for the Jays specifically because of their defensive woes. The less balls in play, the less errors you make, right? The issue with Jimenez is his inconsistent mechanics though. The coaches have to watch him closely, because he’s been known to stray off the path in the past, and I am not sure I trust the coaching staff in Toronto to do something like that, given the recent history with handling their pitchers. This makes signing Jimenez a very tough pill to swallow. While I don’t think Santana would be as disastrous as some claim, I do think that at the end of the day, Ubaldo Jimenez is the gamble worth making. Your turn, AA.
WINNER: Ubaldo Jimenez