Detroit Tigers’ Joe Jimenez was an All-Star. Where it went wrong and how he can fix it

Detroit Free Press

Evan Petzold
 
| Detroit Free Press

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Joe Jimenez always understood the rules.

The Detroit Tigers gave him the code to unlocking his long-term success when signing him from the Puerto Rico Baseball Academy in June 2013. That year, he debuted for the Gulf Coast League Tigers — posting a 0.50 ERA with 24 strikeouts in 18 innings.

“They always told me if I want to be in the big leagues, I have to throw strikes,” Jimenez said in 2016, as Double-A Erie’s closer. “And that’s what I’m doing right now.”

He accomplished the request in the minor leagues with a 1.56 ERA, 0.908 WHIP, 241 strikeouts and 52 walks in 167⅓ innings across five seasons. He ascended to the majors at 22 years old.

Yet Jimenez, 25, has since crumbled. Deemed the closer when the shortened 2020 season began, he ended with a 7.15 ERA — despite seven scoreless outings to finish the year — and lost his role to 25-year-old Bryan Garcia. At times, former manager Ron Gardenhire didn’t know when to put Jimenez in the game to be successful.

These struggles are nothing new for Jimenez, who has a 5.65 ERA in 164 innings over four MLB seasons. He was named an All-Star in 2018, but that’s only because the Tigers were required to have at least representative on the AL’s Midsummer Classic roster.

Accompanying every high point in Jimenez’s career is a frustrating low. The problem, as it has been with many former top prospects, is he hasn’t lived up to expectations. Others include outfielder Christin Stewart and pitchers Kyle Funkhouser and Beau Burrows.

“It’s important for this team, this organization,” Gardenhire said, hours before his Sept. 19 retirement. “We have decisions to make on what’s going to happen next year, and he’s a big part of it, whether closing or whatever. He’s a power arm, a big, strong arm. We know he can do it.”

For subscribers: Evaluating which Tigers are being passed by as rebuild marches on

Each of Jimenez’s four years in the majors has come with failures. He puts his wipeout slider on display to pair with a dose of his 95-mph fastball. And then, out of nowhere, the repertoire and command evaporates.

Followed by a loss of confidence.

Followed by the Tigers not knowing how to use him without putting the lead — admittedly, a rarity in recent years — at risk.

[ Why Christin Stewart’s struggles with Tigers is a sign of a bigger problem ]

“It’s my job to be ready no matter what,” Jimenez said Sept. 6. “I think that (nine-game losing streak from Aug. 11 to Aug. 20) got me out of rhythm a little bit. I was feeling good the first three weeks of the season. And now, obviously, they’re trying to find my spots that I can feel confident again.

“I’m a little bit frustrated with myself because I know I can pitch in the ninth with the lead. I’m just trying to get my confidence back and finish the year as the closer.”

But a closer can’t be inconsistent. Whereas left-handed starter Matthew Boyd, who has plummeted since last season’s All-Star break, can count on a chance to fix his struggles every five days, Jimenez doesn’t get that much room for error.

Swiping Jimenez’s role, Garcia produced a 1.66 ERA in 21⅔ innings across 26 appearances. Those numbers correlate to “closer of the future” — not the 12.10 ERA in 11 games from Jimenez before he lost the closer duties.

Here is a look at Jimenez’s percentile rankings compared to major league pitchers in the 2020 season:

Tigers general manager Al Avila said Jimenez’s struggles came from the COVID-19 pandemic. The virus forced a shutdown in March. Players were given less than a month in July’s summer camp to prepare for the 60-game sprint.

When Jimenez’s fastball velocity dipped to a 93 mph average in August, Avila figured it could have been a “dead arm period” through the worst parts of his 2020 campaign. Regardless of Avila’s optimism, history seems to repeat itself: Jimenez has strong moments, falls apart and vows to get better. That has happened for four seasons.

Still, Jimenez is only 25, and Avila isn’t ready to give up on him.

“I think Joe is still a good, viable pitcher going into the future,” Avila said Oct. 2. “At the end, you saw the velocity spike up and the sharpness of the slider getting better and, of course, he’s got the changeup. I think he’s still a guy that you can count on as we move forward.”

Opponents had a .750 batting average against his changeup (6-for-8) this year, followed by .280 against his fastball and .167 against his slider. In 2019, opponents had a .571 average when Jimenez went to his changeup.

Don’t forget about his feud with Minnesota Twins slugger Miguel Sano, a time when “pimping” home runs and strikeouts took precedent over Jimenez’s on-field performance. The tension had been building, and it reached the breaking point when Sano crushed a 414-foot homer off Jimenez on Sept. 5. From expletives to calling out alleged liars, there was too much drama.

“Don’t ever say something to me because I never said something to you,” Jimenez said about Sano. “If he would’ve pimped it without saying anything, it would be cool. But at the same time, he did it the wrong way. If I strike him out from now on, I’m gonna do my own thing, too. … It’s just disappointing that he thinks like that and, obviously, he was wrong.”

They met again Sept. 22, but Sano flew out to the warning track. Words of anger were not exchanged. After the debacle, Jimenez had nine scoreless outings in 10 appearances to wrap up his roller-coaster season. 

[ Tigers’ 2021 Opening Day prediction: Lots of holes to plug still ]

Jimenez is going to get another chance to pitch for the Tigers in the 2021 season — Avila has made that clear. His role, however, is unclear. The closer spot won’t be handed to him; he must earn it.

And his label as the closer of the future may have been transferred to someone new for the time being.

“Whether he can regain the closer’s job or not, we’re in a performance-based business, and you have to earn it,” Avila said. “Garcia was impressive. He’s got really good mound presence. … There’s a lot of things about being a closer or late-inning reliever where it’s not just about velocity, but it’s about control and command.”

Evan Petzold is a sports reporting intern at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzoldThe Free Press has started a new digital subscription model. Here’s how you can gain access to our most exclusive Detroit Tigers content

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