CHICAGO — Joe Jiménez was admittedly caught by surprise when he didn’t make the Tigers’ bullpen out of Spring Training, but he put in the work, changed his game and made it back.
Then, just as he was delivering some of his best work of the summer, he came down with COVID-19 around Labor Day in the middle of a road trip, even though he was fully vaccinated and being careful.
He made it back again and will end the season with a role in Detroit’s bullpen. Whether he keeps that role through this offseason and a potential trip through arbitration could be the next challenge.
“For everybody that doesn’t have a good season, that’s going to cross your mind,” Jiménez said this week. “But you know what? I’m in a position where whatever happens, happens. Obviously, I want to stay here, because this is where I grew up and now we are in a position that we’re almost there to be a playoff team and be a winning team. I really want to stay, but whatever decision they make, I can’t control them.”
Statistically, Jiménez is all over the place. In some categories, he has bounced back from a nightmarish 2020 season, including 55 strikeouts over 44 1/3 innings for a strikeout rate of 11.2 per nine innings. With 34 hits allowed, he’s averaging 6.9 hits per nine innings, the lowest ratio of his career. On the flip side, he has allowed just as many walks as hits, another ratio of 6.9 per nine innings in a category where that stands out on the wrong side. He also has hit eight batters.
By contrast, a lot of his metrics are actually encouraging. While he has regained about half of the fastball velocity he lost from 2019 to 2020, now averaging 94.7 mph, his fastball spin rate is the highest of his career at 2,495 rpm, and among the top 6 percent of Major League pitchers this season, according to Statcast. That likely helped him raise the swing-and-miss rate on his fastball to 25.4 percent, not as high as his 2018 (27.5) and ’19 (29.2) rates, but much improved over his 17.7 percent rate from last season.
“Just from the start of the season to now, my delivery, my pitches are a lot different,” Jiménez said. “I’m still trying to get used to it. It’s a hard process to basically change everything like night and day to try to compete and help the team. I’m going into the offseason to work on those things.”
The big improvement has been the increased use of his slider and changeup, now comprising nearly 46 percent of his pitches combined. Jiménez’s 54.2 percent fastball usage marks his first season under 62 percent.
“I’m not going to say I’m a better or worse pitcher than I was before,” Jiménez said. “Obviously before, the results were better. It doesn’t matter how I felt two years ago, three years ago.”
While opponents are hitting .210 off Jiménez this year, his .168 expected batting average — based on launch angle, exit velocity and placement — ranks among the top one percent of pitchers in the league. His 33-percent hard-hit rate is the lowest of his career and ranks among the top 12 percent of pitchers.
If Jiménez can improve his command and get hitters to chase pitches out of the zone a little bit more, he has a chance at success. He wants to work on making his delivery more consistent this winter.
“My biggest problem this year was commanding the fastball,” Jiménez said, “because I changed my delivery completely, and I didn’t get used to it. Obviously, a few outings were good. I just didn’t have it consistent.”
Whether that comes with the Tigers or another team probably won’t become clear until the offseason, likely around the tender deadline.