Kansas City, Mo. — If you could’ve made it into the stadium early enough back in May, invariably you would’ve seen two men walking slowly around the track at Comerica Park. Usually the smaller of the two men would be doing most of the talking. The larger man, listening intently, would occasionally nod, smile and nod again.
What you were looking at were the seeds of Joe Jimenez’s renaissance.
“It was a very tough time for me,” Jimenez said hours before the Tigers opened a three-game series against the Royals. “And Spencer Wood helped me a lot. My family helped me a lot. The mental part of the game, for me, is the most important. (Wood) understands that better than we do.”
Dr. Spencer Wood is the Tigers’ mental skills coach. The nature of his talks with Jimenez and other players, of course, is confidential. But Jimenez said those sessions were the start of his baseball recovery.
“I was just trying to get it in my head and in my body — ‘You can do this here. Let’s go,’” Jimenez said.
You already know the story. Jimenez, the former All-Star and Tigers closer, didn’t make the club out of spring training. He did not take the news well. At all.
“That situation is hard for anyone,” he said. “For me, I wasn’t thinking I was going to go down. It was my first year of arbitration. That was the last thing I expected, that I would start my year in Triple-A. It was tough to handle, I’m not going to lie.”
Neither his head nor heart were much into baseball in those first weeks at the alternate site but, because of some early injuries, the Tigers called him up just two weeks into the season. And he wasn’t ready. By May 22 he’d been demoted and recalled twice and his ERA was a lusty 22.09. His fastball velocity was as low as it’s ever been in his professional life, so low he started pitching more off his slider.
Chasing velocity, his mechanics got out of whack and he walked 10 in 4.2 innings.
“He lost conviction and wasn’t sure where he could throw it in the strike zone,” manager AJ Hinch said. “And I think his delivery broke down and he stopped throwing strikes. But one thing I really appreciate about Joe, he continued to learn, continued to develop.
“And he’s got just the right amount of stubbornness to be a reliever that can be high-leverage and no margin for error, but he also has the work ethic to try to figure things out.”
Trying to figure out where his velocity went was causing him serious distress.
“There were a lot of things going on at the beginning of the season and nothing was going the way I wanted,” Jimenez said. “I had to find a way to get that confidence back. It was hard for me to do at that time.”
While he was at Toledo, he pored over video from the first half of 2018, when he was blowing hitters away with upper-90s fastballs. He made some subtle mechanical adjustments. But nothing worked.
“It was like, ‘I’m feeling really good, how am I not throwing hard?’” he said. “I was asking myself that. Yeah, I was doing bad. I wasn’t throwing strikes and all of that. But my arm was feeling good. I wasn’t feeling any pain. Why? Why am I not throwing the ball hard?”
On April 17, his fastball was sitting at 93 mph, with a range between 91 to 94. In his last two outings earlier this week, it was sitting at 95 and touching 97.
“Now I feel like I’m a different pitcher than I was before,” Jimenez said. “My mechanics are different. My arm slot is different. And the ball is jumping.”
Since May 24, he’s 4-1 with one blown save and four holds. He’s got 25 strikeouts and 11 walks in 21 innings. Opponents are slashing .208/.337/.338 with an OPS of .675. Opponents are hitting .174 and slugging .304 off his fastball.
And, oh by the way, he’s completely refashioned his slider. He’s throwing it 91-92 mph, more of a cutter-slider hybrid that he can use against right-handers and left-handers. He’s got a 38% swing-and-miss rate with it.
“Now to see him pitch with the confidence and conviction again, it’s part of his development track,” Hinch said. “He’s dominating the strike zone and that’s super important for him. When he’s in the zone (and working ahead in the count), guys don’t hit him as much as when he’s outside the zone and then gets in hitter-friendly counts.”
There’s rarely a light-bulb moment with these things. It’s never like flipping a switch. But there was a moment last Saturday in the second game of a doubleheader against the Twins that cemented the notion that Jimenez was back, that he’d slayed whatever mental demons were tormenting him back in April.
He threw a two-out wild pitch in the first extra inning that gave the Twins a one-run lead. There was still a runner in scoring position. Jimenez shook off the wild pitch and blew away Ryan Jeffers to end the inning. Doubt he’d be able to regroup that quickly in April.
“I just wanted to give our team an opportunity to win,” he said. “I knew we were going to hit (in the bottom of the eighth) with a runner on second. Yeah, I didn’t want that guy to score, but if he scores, that’s the way it was supposed to be. But I was going to get that next guy and give us a chance to win.”
And the Tigers did win, scoring twice in the bottom of the eighth.
Jimenez is back working in high-leverage situations, which seemed unfathomable three months ago. With Gregory Soto and Kyle Funkhouser not expected to be available Friday, Jimenez was in line to be the set-up reliever ahead of Jose Cisnero.
“It was a tough time,” Jimenez said. “I’m glad I am past that page and we’re in this position now. A position to help the team. That’s really my focus. We’re a team and we want to win. And I want to be a part of that.”
Around the horn
… Michael Fulmer took a big step toward getting back on the active roster, throwing a scoreless inning for the Toledo Mud Hens in his first rehab outing. “He was really good,” Hinch said. “His velocity was 98, he sat at 96-97. His slider was 91-94. Clearly he got to the competition and felt like he could let it go. That’s a great sign.” Fulmer, who has been out with a neck strain, will throw again for Toledo on Sunday and his status will be determined after that.
On deck: Royals
►First pitch: 7:10 p.m.
►TV/Radio: BSD, MLBN, 97.1
►RHP Casey Mize (5-5, 3.44), Tigers: After three limited-innings starts (one three-inning, two four-inning), some of the restrictions are expected to come off. It’ll be a gradual increase as he ramps back up to full capacity. But he’s been so efficient in his last two starts, he’s extended his innings on his own.
►RHP Carlos Hernandez (1-1, 4.91), Royals: Buckle up. He’s bringing 98 mph with his two-seamer and 97 with his four-seamer. And off of that he will mix a curve (34% whiff rate) and to right-handed hitters, a slider (50% whiff rate). He spent most of the season in the bullpen. This is his second start.
— Chris McCosky