Joe Jiménez’s breakout campaign ends with an injury

Bless You Boys

Based on how the 2022 Detroit Tigers’ season has played out, season ending injuries are no surprise on the pitching front. That said, it’s really too bad that a superb breakout campaign from reliever Joe Jiménez has ended with only a week and a half remaining due to a lumbar strain. The club announced on Saturday that the right-hander has been moved to the 15-day injured list, effectively ending him season. Early reports indicate it isn’t too serious, and the right-hander is expected to rehab this offseason and be ready to go in the spring. Reliever Angel de Jesus has been recalled in his place.

Unfortunate as its conclusion is, the 2022 season was a brilliant one for the 27-year-old Jiménez. After a strong 2018 campaign led to an All-Star selection, the San Juan, Puerto Rico native struggled for three straight seasons before finally putting it all together in his best season as a pro. New Tigers’ President of Baseball Ops, Scott Harris, will have a tricky decision to make regarded Jiménez with only one year left until he reaches free agency.

Joe Jimenez Career 2018-2022

Season IP FIP K% BB% HR/9 SwStr% CSW%
Season IP FIP K% BB% HR/9 SwStr% CSW%
2018 62.2 2.91 29.2 8.2 0.72 13.4 28.7
2019 59.2 4.66 31.9 8.9 1.96 14.8 32.1
2020 22.2 6.72 21.8 5.9 2.78 13.1 28.3
2021 45.1 5.22 27.1 16.7 1.19 13.7 27.1
2022 56.2 2.00 33.3 5.6 0.64 14.5 30.5

Fastball command is life

Since Tigers’ pitching coach Chris Fetter began working with Jiménez in 2021, the emphasis has been on making his delivery more compact and getting him driving to the plate more effectively. The goal of these changes has been to optimize the life on his high-spin fourseam fastball, keep him moving on a more direct line to the plate throughout his motion, and maximize his extension and release angle. The secondary project was to build a more consistent slider with better depth, as opposed to the humpbacked spinner he used to throw. In 2022, it finally all came together for him.

Since 2018, Jiménez has declined, both in terms of command and in bat-missing movement. His walk rates spiked somewhat, while his home run rates went through the roof. The strikeouts have always been there for him, but too often interrupted by a walk and/or a home run in the midst of an inning.

In 2022, all of this changed. Among qualified relievers, Jiménez checks in 20th lowest in walk rate, and 15th best in strikeout rate. Combined with a far better home run rate, this has produced a 2.00 FIP, sixth best among all relievers, and 17th best among all relievers in fWAR, with a 1.4 fWAR mark.

Simply put, Jiménez was comfortably one of the 10 most valuable relief pitchers in baseball this season.

Part of the answer is improved command with the fastball, the result of improved mechanics that allowed him free rein to just unleash the heater. That command allowed him to use it in all parts of the zone rather than trying to blow high fastballs past everyone, and trust that hitters would whiff or make weak contact even if he missed over the middle. He and Fetter started working on this in 2021, and it may explain Jiménez’s rather miserable command last season as they tinkered with his motion.

The delivery adjustments show up in his extension, as he went from 6.4 feet of extension to the plate last season, to 6.8 feet with the fastball this season. Not only is he releasing the ball further down the mound, but at a lower point, more like his motion when he first arrived in the league. That lower release point gives him a flatter angle to his targets, particularly down in the zone where he used to avoid throwing the fastball.

In the process Jiménez also increased the spin efficiency on his 95.7 mph, 2461 rpm average fastball this year from 94 percent efficiency last season up to 97 percent. In the process he gained over a half inch of ride, and over an inch and a half of horizontal break. Small as those increments may seem, they can add up to huge differences in performance over the course of a season.

Overall, Jiménez didn’t really gain any extra whiffs on the heater. What he did gain was the ability to work up and down, in and out with the fastball, helping him to be less predictable and rack up plenty of first pitch strikes without getting ambushed. From June 13 until his final appearance on September 20, when perhaps the back issue was already flaring up, Jiménez didn’t allow a single home run. And once he had hitters down in the count, he had a rebuilt weapon with which to put them away.

Tuning up the slider

The other element that took a leap in Jiménez’s game this season was the slider. Again, this was the continuation of work he and Fetter put in during the second half last summer in 2021. The new edition was much more of a true rifle spin slider than the somewhat more sweeping version thrown in 2021 and prior years. The deviation between spin-based estimated movement and the actual observed movement got smaller each of the past two seasons, from 75 degrees in 2020, to 60 degrees in 2021, all the way to 45 degrees this season.

Categorizing sliders via movement is really tricky, as they’re built to play off the fastball. There’s no “ideal slider” that one can devise just based on the characteristics of the pitch alone. The interplay between the two offerings is crucial. But clearly Jiménez got far better results this year. Perhaps simply trimming some of the horizontal break on it was part of him developing a more comfortable version that he could command more effectively.

The key to all this is that hitters slugged a meager .227 against the slider with Statcast’s estimated slugging percentage, xSLG, still checking in at just .247. Hitters didn’t hit a single slider for a home run, and in fact Jiménez allowed just two extra base hits total against the breaker. In 2021, he gave up two home runs, and five other extra base hits. Combined with the improvements in the fastball, the utter lack of hangers getting smoked made Jiménez incredibly difficult to deal with.

Looking ahead

The question now facing new President of Baseball Operations, Scott Harris, is what to do with Big Joe? We can be relatively confident in what he won’t do. Jiménez won’t be allowed to pitch into July without a new contract, only to be flipped for meager prospect returns. We expect Harris to be far more proactive in his process than Al Avila.

The first option is to offer Jiménez an extension. Perhaps buying out his final season before free agency, along with two more years beyond, would be the way to go. Getting a top 10 reliever’s age 28, 29, and 30 seasons for say, $12 million total with some incentives in the mix, could be well worth doing. After making $1.8 million in 2022, he’s probably going to be due something like $3 million for 2023 in arbitration, so quibble with the numbers as you like, but something like $12-15 million seems reasonable.

The second option is to trade Jiménez. This seems a fairly likely possibility, but much will depend on Jiménez’s willingness to take a reasonable offer after only one season of real dominance. If he is, that’s probably the best way to maximize his value to the Tigers. Returns on this sort of deal have been diminishing in recent years, and he’s not Edwin Diaz, for example. Of course, Harris isn’t Al Avila either. It’s possible that the need to bulk up the offense leads him to pursue a more significant deal for a hitter, in which case someone like Jiménez could become a secondary chip along the way.

Either way, one of the few bright spots this season was watching the homegrown right-hander finally come into his own after a few seasons in the weeds. Always known as an intense, hard-worker, it all finally came together for him. We’ll see if it now pays off for him in the offseason. Hopefully the new leadership of the Tigers can find the best path to maximizing Jiménez’s value to the ballclub.

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