Detroit — A year ago at this time, it was fair to wonder why the Tigers hadn’t cut ties with reliever Joe Jimenez.
The one-time All-Star, coming off two rough seasons, didn’t make the roster of spring training and then struggled mightily once he did get called up, walking 15 in 8.2 innings and posting an ERA of just under 12 in his first 12 games.
What was it that kept manager AJ Hinch and pitching coach Chris Fetter believing in Jimenez?
“I know there’s been a longer road to this Joe Jimenez story than my time here,” Hinch said. “Maybe I didn’t carry the baggage of the two or three years prior to that, the ups and down he had. When I became manager here, the last time I interacted with Joe Jimenez was at the All-Star Game (2018).
“That tells you I didn’t carry anything into this. I just based everything on what I saw.”
What he saw was a fastball with a well-above-average spin rate that was playing well in the upper part of the strike zone — when Jimenez could land it there. He saw that despite the walks, opponents were still hitting under .200 against him.
“When you look at what was getting Joe in trouble in the past, it had nothing to do with the competition,” Hinch said. “It had nothing to do with what happened when he threw strikes with all of his pitches. That gives great hope.
“When you can beat Major League hitters inside the strike zone, there is some upside there.”
Flash forward to today. Jimenez has cleaned up his mechanics, he has quickened his pace on the mound. His fastball velocity is back up to 95-96, even hitting 97 mph when he needs it, and he’s pounding the strike zone with three pitches.
“I’m just trying to embrace whatever situation I’m in,” Jimenez said before the game Monday. “It’s tough from a couple of years back until now, but I’m trying to be myself again.”
He’s there. Over his last 11 outings, he’s allowed one earned run with 13 strikeouts and two walks over 10 innings. Opponents are hitting .147 and slugging .177 off him in that stretch. On the season, he’s throwing first-pitch strikes 69% of the time.
He’s getting swings and misses on 25% with his four-seam fastballs and 41% with his slider. He seldom uses the changeup, but it’s been effective. Hitters are 1-for-8 against it.
“I would say the location of the fastball has been key,” Jimenez said. “The changeup is a lot better, too, but the slider has really improved a lot from last year to this year. I’m more in control of it and I’m throwing it in situations I want to and putting it in good spots.
“But because the fastball is back, everything comes up with it. The work I put in during the offseason just to get to this point with the fastball. You don’t have to do a lot when you have the delivery you want. Everything comes with it.”
In 2018, Jimenez was the team’s closer. These days, he’s working in various situations, mostly medium to low leverage.
“We’ve got some guys down there and the bullpen is doing great,” he said. “That’s what I’m saying. It doesn’t matter the situation right now. I know we’ve got guys for the good situations. It’s just every time they put me in, I just try to do my job.”
That voodoo you do
Catcher Tucker Barnhart posted a video on Instagram of him ceremoniously sacrificing a bat to a fire.
“Yeah, Tucker sent that to me last night,” Hinch said. “He said, ‘All is better.’ He thinks that solved it. I told him I fully support any and all parting of demons and issues with the bat.”
The Tigers were shut out Sunday for the eighth time this season. They were shut out nine times all of last season. They rank last in baseball in home runs and runs scored. Might as well try to exorcise the bad juju.
“Whatever works,” Hinch said.
There was another good-luck charm hovering in the Tigers clubhouse Monday. Somebody brought out the Macho Man WWE championship belt that Derek Holland presented the team last year and gave out to the pitcher of the game.
The belt was in Jimenez’s extra locker.
“Somebody in here had it and brought it to me,” Jimenez said.
He’s not sure how the belt will be used this year.
“We’re going to see,” he said. “It will either be for the pitcher of the game or maybe for home runs. Let’s see.”
Around the horn
… The Tigers are still listing TBA for the starting pitcher Tuesday. Hinch reiterated it would be a bullpen game, but he hinted there could be a roster move coming after the game Monday. Lefty Tyler Alexander, out because of an elbow sprain, was expected to be activated soon.
… With Eduardo Rodriguez on the restricted list and off the roster for the time being, Hinch said Rony Garcia would have an opportunity to stay in the rotation. “I hope he goes out and proves it to be true,” Hinch said. “Right now, Rony is the likely candidate to continue to pitch.”
White Sox at Tigers
First pitch: 7:10, Comerica Park
RHP Dylan Cease (4-3, 3.14), White Sox: A chase team like the Tigers has been catnip for him. Teams that make him pitch in the strike zone tend to get rewarded. His 33 walks are most in the American League (so is his 12.7 strikeouts per nine rate). He’s walked 10 in his last two starts. But the Tigers haven’t been able to rein him in, which partly explains his 9-0 record and 2.08 ERA against them in 10 starts.
TBA, Tigers: This might’ve been lefty Eduardo Rodriguez’s first start since going on the injured list, but he left the team Sunday to tend to a personal matter. Manager AJ Hinch said this would be a bullpen game, though there is a chance Tyler Alexander could be activated off the IL and be the first pitcher used.