Tigers closer Joe Jimenez came into the season ready to build off a strong September. Instead, his fastball has let him down, leading him on a downward spiral to start the year.
Despite struggling for much of the season last year, Joe Jimenez came to camp this year seeking to prove he could become the dominant reliever that he has shown small glimpses of becoming in his first few seasons with the team.
Co-site expert Roger Castillo recapped the 2019 season for Jimenez. He was inconsistent and lost the feel for his command at times, especially in the first half of the year, putting up a 4.81 ERA prior to the All-Star break. He was actually pretty decent at keeping hitters off-balance, striking out nearly 14 batters per nine innings, and allowing a batting average of .221. His big issue was command, giving up 4.3 walks per nine innings.
Jimenez was able to bounce back in the second half of the season, shaving a run off his ERA post-All-Star break. He teased Tigers fans with a short stint of dominance, only allowing one run and striking out 13 in nine outstanding September innings.
Instead of building off his September magic, Joe Jimenez has struggled mightily out of the gate in 2020. He has allowed 12 earned runs in 8.2 innings, the most recent collapse coming in the ninth inning against Cleveland on Sunday. Jimenez entered with a huge lead in the ninth, promptly served up two walks and a three-run homer, and was removed from the game. His -1.0 wins above replacement is the worst among all Tigers pitchers.
There’s a growing sentiment among Tigers fans that Jimenez simply is what he is at this point. Since the 2018 All-Star break, he has an ERA of 6.03 and has successfully converted only 70 percent of save opportunities. Of course, he is only 25 years old, but there has been little to no improvement in his repertoire or pitchability in recent times.
What Went Wrong
There are some troubling signs for Jimenez in 2020, even compared to his mediocre 2019. His fastball velocity has fallen off significantly to an average velocity of 93.8, a drop of nearly 2.5 miles per hour. The pitch has also entirely lost its vertical movement. Last season, it had three inches of sinking action that has completely disappeared in favor of some slight horizontal break.
The change in his fastball has made opposing hitters’ eyes light up. Thus far, he has allowed a batting average of .316 and an eye-popping .526 slugging percentage on the pitch. The average exit velocity of 93.1 on the fastball ranks in the bottom three percent of all MLB pitchers.
Further, his changeup that was terrible a year ago has been even worse this year. Four of six balls put in play against the pitch have resulted in hits, three of them for extra bases. He uses the changeup solely against left-handed hitters as a way to help his fastball play up, but it is simply not a good pitch.
The one positive for Jimenez is the success he has had with his slider. He redesigned his slider to sweep less horizontally and, instead, break tightly downward. The change has helped him increase his whiff percentage on the pitch to 61.1 percent, an elite mark.
The Tigers have been relatively quiet on Joe Jimenez, giving no indication of whether they are considering removing him from the closer role. At this point, a change to another reliever would be a welcomed sight for Tigers fans.
If they do make a change, one option would be to fill the role by committee, allowing Buck Farmer or breakout lefty Gregory Soto to get some save opportunities.
Don’t sleep on veteran righty Jose Cisnero as a possible closer option. I laid out Cisnero’s strengths and weaknesses, and why he could be an option for high-leverage innings. His slider may be the best pitch in the Tigers bullpen and his high 90s heater would play well in high-leverage situations.