Since Ubaldo Jimenez and Ervin Santana are the two big names left in the free agent pitching market (unless AJ Burnett would consider a one year deal in KC), I just wanted to look at them in comparison to make sure Ervin really is the guy the Royals should target. My position of what I think the value of a pitcher to slot second in the rotation was hopefully made clear in my last article. To start I will look at a brief history of Ubaldo.
In 2008 Jimenez started to show signs that he could be a dominant starter, and posted a solid year. He followed it up with two fantastic seasons for the Rockies including an All-Star year in 2010 where he finished 3rd in the Cy Young vote. Then it all quickly fell apart.
Ubaldo’s 2011 campaign was a disaster, and eventually Colorado traded him away for a decent haul of prospects. Cleveland was hoping he would bounce back to ace form, but 2012 was even worse, and it was starting to look like Colorado had sold at just the right time. Last year though, after some early season struggles, Ubaldo seemed to find something. By the end of the season his numbers looked pretty good, and his second half last year was fantastic with a 1.82 ERA that FIP (2.17) and xFIP (2.99) liked quite a lot too.
What happened to bring Jimenez back to elite form last year? All he had to do was become a different pitcher.
Jimenez rose to prominence early in his career due to an overpowering fastball. He had one of the fastest in the big leagues averaging around 96 MPH and touching 100 occasionally. He rode that pitch through all of 2008, 9, and 10 throwing it well over 60% of his pitches and in 2009 nearly 70% of the time. He fell apart when this pitch disappeared. In 2011 the velocity dropped an average of about 2 MPH, and another 1.5 MPH left in 2012 until his average was a relatively pedestrian 92.5 MPH.
Last year Ubaldo stopped relying on his heater, and it made all the difference. Here are his pitch values for fastballs over time from Fangraphs (PITCHf/x values are similar):
|Runs Above Average|
Now you might say to yourself, it was below average last year and just as bad as 2011. That is true, but it is only part of the story. In 2011 that negative pitch was being thrown a little over 60% of the time, and in 2013 only 54% of the time for one thing. Even more important last year though, was that he had improved run values for his
slider, curve ball, and change. The slider especially became an important pitch with a much greater effectiveness and jumping in usage from 15% or so to being used nearly a quarter of the time.
Ubaldo may be back based on the data, and he has a couple of significant advantages over Ervin. The first is simply being 30, just a little over a year younger. That isn’t a huge difference, but coupled with his durability, more than 30 starts in 6 consecutive seasons, should not be ignored. To be fair, Santana has only one year where injury was an issue, but it also seemed to carry over for the next couple of years. The other advantage to Jimenez is his ability to strike out batters. Ubaldo struck out 9.56 per 9 innings last year versus Ervin’s 6.87 per. Ervin has not been an elite strike out pitcher since before his injury in 2009. Jimenez has always been good at racking up Ks, but last year was very high for him and may not be sustainable.
There is only one thing I will point to for Santana as a clear advantage. That is control. The biggest problem for Ubaldo has been a high walk rate. His best walk rate, in 2009, he still walked 3.51 batters per 9 innings. Last year overall he was at 3.94, but in the second half he was at 2.89, which might point to the advantages of being less fastball dependent again. Santana still has better control though, only walking 2.18/9 for the season last year. His worst rate was in 2007 at 3.48 per 9 innings, but that was seven seasons ago. In the last six seasons his worst was 3.08, so I will call him the better control pitcher and that helps make up for a lower strike out rate.
Control may be enough to tip this in the favor of Santana. Since the beginning of the year 2000, there have been 402 pitcher seasons of 31 years or older where the pitcher threw 150 or more innings (data from Fangraphs). Only 62 of the 402 (15.4%) have been seasons with walk rates of 3.5 per 9 innings or more, which is Ubaldo’s best ever
rate. Older pitchers tend to see declines in K rates, so control becomes increasingly important over time. Only AJ Burnett (ironically), Hideo Nomo, Miguel Batista, Ryan Dempster, and Steve Trachsel have manages this feat more than twice in the time span. So, five pitchers have done okay with high walk rates in the 30s out of all of the starters in the big leagues over the past 14 seasons.
In some ways I am intrigued by Jimenez’s new approach, and think he has a decent chance of being worth grabbing, and I also don’t believe Santana will be quite as good as he was last year, though I think he can be a solid second option. There is one more thing to consider, and that is draft pick compensation. Resigning Santana means the Royals lose the sandwich pick they would have received had he signed elsewhere. Signing Ubaldo means giving up their first round pick, but then presumably they would get a sandwich pick when Santana signs with another team. With Ubaldo you do lose the difference in value between the two picks, which is likely not very significant, but a slight disadvantage to signing Jimenez.
Overall I am torn, and I would guess loyalty would win out. Ervin fits the park well, and I assume is assimilated into the team in a positive manner, so he is probably the choice, but I in some ways am tantalized by the strike outs and such of Ubaldo. Either way I hope the Royals can get another starter to solidify the rotation and these seem like the two most likely candidates, and the simple answer if Dayton were to sign one is likely whoever will sign the shortest or cheapest contract since they are very similar overall.