Coming off a 5.96 ERA for the Tigers in 2021, Jimenez traveled to his home country this winter to pitch for Gigantes de Carolina in the Puerto Rican Winter League, doing so for the first time since the 2015-16 offseason.
“I wanted to work on my delivery in Puerto Rico,” said Jimenez, who turns 27 later this month, on Friday. “I just wanted to get that confidence back. It was the perfect timing for me to go over there and do that. It was amazing. I didn’t feel tired. I didn’t feel uncomfortable. Going into spring training, that’s going to help me a lot. Right now, my arm feels 100%.”
Jimenez appeared in six games for Gigantes de Carolina, tossing 6⅔ scoreless innings with five saves, two hits allowed, zero walks and 10 strikeouts. He came back to the United States after his Dec. 28 outing, less than two weeks before postseason play began.
Gigantes de Carolina is in the semifinals, a best-of-seven series against Indios of Mayaguez. If Jimenez’s team advances, he will consult his agent and fiancé about returning to Puerto Rico in search of a championship. This winter, his family members in Puerto Rico watched him play baseball for the first time in three years.
“All the friends and family, that was amazing,” said Jimenez, speaking from his home in Davenport, Florida, not too far from the Tigers’ spring training complex in Lakeland. “I spent six years without playing (in Puerto Rico) because I was in the big leagues and didn’t want to overwork. But that’s something I put to the side (this year). I just wanted to work on things.”
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Upon arriving in Puerto Rico, Jimenez connected with Gigantes de Carolina pitching coach Jose Santiago. The 47-year-old pitched as a reliever for four MLB teams in the late 1990s and early 2000s, posting a 4.36 ERA in 229 games.
The most notable change in Jimenez’s mechanics is the removal of his glove tap before throwing the ball. The right-hander also appears to have reverted to a longer arm path.
“I thought (last season) the tapping was going to help me stay in line to home plate,” Jimenez said. “But me and the pitching coach in Puerto Rico, we saw a lot of videos from the last couple years, and I talked to him. I told him, ‘This is how I feel comfortable.’ I just wanted to get back to that.”
To discover what works best, Jimenez inspected videos from the 2018, 2019 and 2020 seasons. In those years, he produced a 4.78 ERA in 159 games. He took a little bit from every season: his aggressive throwing motion in 2018 (his All-Star season), his confidence in 2019 and “something that I was doing at the end of 2020 that helped me.”
The changes helped Jimenez throw strikes in Puerto Rico.
Throwing strikes, though, hasn’t been Jimenez’s strong suit for the Tigers.
“To be consistent with my delivery, that’s something I put as a priority this offseason,” Jimenez said. “I wanted to compete, but I wasn’t paying attention (to the numbers). I just wanted to work on the things I needed to work on. No walks and a lot of strikes, that’s a positive.”
Those results were a continuation of Jimenez’s second half in the 2021 season.
Jimenez logged an 8.27 ERA with 21 walks and 26 strikeouts in his first 26 games, then a 4.01 ERA with 14 walks and 31 strikeouts in his final 26 games. In total, he had a 5.96 ERA with 35 walks and 57 strikeouts across 45⅓ innings in 52 appearances.
“In the second half, I felt amazing,” Jimenez said. “I felt comfortable and a lot better than how I started. I wanted to keep doing that in Puerto Rico, so when I got back (for spring training), I will do that again.”
The Tigers were impressed with Jimenez’s second half, and manager AJ Hinch once pointed out his underlying numbers, such as his opponents’ expected batting averages: .168 vs. his fastball, .157 vs. his slider and .197 vs. his changeup last season. He had an elite .168 expected batting average against and a 3.92 expected ERA.
But the ERA on the back of Jimenez’s baseball card is real. It’s 5.72 for his career. He has pitched in 235 games over five years.
Before the lockout, the Tigers revealed they still think Jimenez can be a solid big-league reliever. The franchise tendered him a contract Nov. 30 as part of the salary arbitration process, rather than making him a free agent. He is projected by MLB Trade Rumors to receive $1.8 million in 2022, a raise from last year’s $1.5 million.
“That’s something I didn’t take for granted,” Jimenez said. “I worked hard for it, and I’m doing everything I can right now to get ready for the season. (I want to) have a good season for the team and for me personally. I feel really excited. This year is going to be a good year for us.”
Since Jimenez is back in Florida, he is working out with Tigers closer Gregory Soto. They reside in the same neighborhood and throw together at a local park. One of their friends, who isn’t a professional baseball player, is their catcher.
Jimenez and Soto live within 30 miles of the Tigers’ spring training facility, but they can’t step foot on the property due to MLB’s lockout. The lockout began Dec. 2 following the expiration of the collective bargaining agreement. Facilities are on lockdown, and communication between teams and players on the 40-man rosters is forbidden.
“We have our throwing program and we’re going to throw some bullpens,” Jimenez said, adding pitching coach Chris Fetter and assistant pitching coach Juan Nieves contacted players in the days leading up to the work stoppage to check in. “If spring training started today, I’m ready.”
Whenever spring training begins, even if it’s delayed, Jimenez said he will be prepared to showcase his improvements and win a job on the 2022 Opening Day roster. Last year, he was sent to Triple-A Toledo at the end of camp.
The Tigers, meanwhile, are wondering: Is this the year Jimenez finally shines?
“I wanted to get back to what I was before,” Jimenez said. “My last two years weren’t that good. I want to be consistent and go back to my All-Star performance. It doesn’t matter if I go (to the All-Star Game) this year or not, but I just want to feel it that way.
“That’s something that’s going to help me and help the team. I expect a lot of good things this year.”