The Detroit Tigers staff noticed something was different with Joe Jimenez back in spring training.
Coming off the worst two seasons of his career in 2020 and 2021 — he posted a combined minus-1.2 WAR, with a 6.35 ERA and 1.471 WHIP in 68 innings — the 2018 All-Star came into camp looking to prove he could once again be a reliable option in the back end of the bullpen.
“It started on his own during the lockout where he revamped a few things,” said manager A.J. Hinch after Jimenez got this first save of the season Monday in Game 2 of a doubleheader sweep over Cleveland. “He locked in on what he needed to do where he could be better than he’s been the previous couple of seasons.”
While in Lakeland, Florida, during the spring, Jimenez said he wanted to take a deeper look at some of the metrics to make sure he understood what worked and what didn’t from a season ago.
He said it was a tool to improve, but it’s not something he wants to focus on now.
“To be honest, at this point I’m not paying too much attention to that,” Jimenez said Tuesday. “I’m just trying to repeat my delivery every time I go out there and stay in control no matter the situation.”
The Tigers started the season by working him in slowly in low leverage situations to open the season. Positive returns showed immediately in April, when he allowed just two earned runs through 8⅓ innings in seven outings that month.
He allowed three earned runs on May 4 and another run on May 8.
But with the exception of two tough appearances against the White Sox in mid-June — when he gave up four earned runs in two outings — he has since been steady for a bullpen that ranks among the tops in all of baseball.
In his past 23 appearances dating back to early May, Jimenez has held opponents scoreless 18 times. He has allowed just seven runs (six earned) over 22 innings during that stretch, dropping his ERA dropping from a season-worst 4.82 on May 4 to 3.16 entering Thursday.
“He’s very dialed in, focused,” Hinch said. “He’s not going to want to talk about it, he’s not necessarily going to tip his hand on what he’s doing, but he’s got an inner focus this season that’s better than last year.
“When we put him in any situation, he’s responded very well.”
Across the board, Jimenez is having the best season of his career.
The 27-year-old is 3-0, with 40 strikeouts and just seven walks in 31⅓ innings. His 0.913 WHIP ranks 15th among MLB relievers with at least 30 innings pitched and the best mark on the team.
His 5.7 strikeout-to-walk ratio is nearly four times better than his career-worst (1.6) a season ago, with his 33.3% strikeout rate and 5.8% walk rate both the best of his career.
His advanced numbers tell a similar story, with an expected ERA of 2.73.
He is among baseball’s best in walk rate (80th percentile), whiff rate (80th percentile), chase rate (81st percentile), fastball velocity (81st percentile), expected batting average (85th percentile), expected ERA (89th percentile) and strikeout percentage (93rd percentile).
“I’m very proud of him for taking ownership of what he needed to do and get rewarded for it by pitching well,” Hinch said. “Then, he’s getting more opportunities because he’s pitching well, so I’m very happy for him.”
The higher the leverage, the better Jimenez seems to be this season.
In innings 7-9, batters are hitting just .184 (16-for-87) off the righty whose average fastball is up to 95.6 mph this season.
“It’s hard, coming in (in different scenarios),” Jimenez said Tuesday. “But at this point you have to do the job, it doesn’t matter what situation you’re in.”
According to Statcast, his changeup, which was moving just 1.3 inches vertically a season ago, is now dropping 3.1 inches.
Last season, Jimenez walked 35 batters in 45⅓ innings, ranking in the bottom 1% of the league.
“It doesn’t solve everything,” Jimenez said with a laugh about the importance of his improved control. “But it helps.”
Because he wasn’t accurate, batters were able to lay off pitches that weren’t in the zone, generating a chase rate of just 13%. Jimenez’s four-seam fastball had an expected batting average against of .168 — the best mark of his career, ranking in the 99th percentile in the majors.
While he posted a 5.96 ERA, his expected ERA was 3.89.
As for his role this season, it continues to morph as he puts up better numbers. Alex Lange and Michael Fulmer both have cases to be the All-Star representative for the team and have largely locked down the seventh- and eighth-inning roles.
Gregory Soto is the closer, though Hinch has shown a willingness to mix and match when he sees fit. Andrew Chafin has been elite as well and is one of just two left-handed pitchers in the bullpen.
Jimenez has come in and gotten the job done when his name is called. That’s all he’s hoping to do, even if he’s still not locked into a specific role.”
“The bullpen has been used a lot,” Jimenez said. “Coming in since this offseason I’ve been throwing in different situations, so I’ll be ready.
Contact Tony Garcia at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on twitter at @realtonygarcia.