In his first dozen starts this year, Ubaldo Jimenez of the Colorado Rockies was as good as a pitcher can be. His record -- 11-1 with an earned run average of 0.93 -- just hints at how strong he was. The 26-year-old right-hander gave up one or no runs in three quarters of his starts, threw a no-hitter in what was arguably his second-best start, and generally humiliated the National League. Some of the best pitchers in baseball history, in their best years, have come nowhere near this level.
Taking, for example, the pitcher seasons since 1947 with the 10 highest Wins Above Replacement and adjusted ERA marks, and adding in the top seasons of Zack Greinke, Ron Guidry, Randy Johnson, Billy Pierce and Tom Seaver, you come up with exactly three stretches of 12 consecutive games where any of these pitchers fared as well as Jimenez has done entering his start against the Blue Jays on Friday night. These are the greatest seasons turned in by the greatest pitchers since integration, legendary years that account for the primes of such pitchers as Greg Maddux and Sandy Koufax as well as the best seasons from the likes of Dwight Gooden and Steve Carlton. In all of them, only two men have bettered Jimenez's recent pitching over a span of 12 games.
To put what Jimenez has done so far in further context, consider that were he to pitch 21 games over the rest of the year at a rate of six innings per start, allowing an exactly average 4.10 ERA and running up a 7-7 won-loss record, his line at the end of the year would be 18-8 with a 2.78 ERA in 213.1 innings. This is, essentially, a normal Roy Halladay season. Jimenez has never been average in his entire professional career; the most likely case is that we've just seen the opening third of one of the truly great pitching seasons in baseball history.
At least as impressive as what he's done is how he's done it.
There is, if we're honest, a slight prejudice against hard throwers, who are often thought to be a bit unsophisticated. The whole art of being a refined baseball fan is supposed to involve favoring the hidden and unseen. The aesthete prefers place-hitting to power, defense to any sort of hitting, and a certain delicacy in his pitchers. He appreciates the precision of Halladay's poisoned darts, or Johan Santana's gift for setting hitters ever so lightly off their balance.
This has a rational basis. Pitchers can only control so much of what happens on the field; the best are those who strike out a lot of hitters and walk very few, tricks which usually require a certain thoughtfulness of approach. This is an area of the game which devotees of style and of numbers can agree.
Jimenez throws his fastball harder than any starter in the major leagues and his changeup hits 90 miles per hour, more than plenty of respectable pitchers have on their heater. On a given night a pitcher such as Felix Hernandez, Josh Johnson or Justin Verlander may be throwing as hard, but no one will throw harder. And this, in part, is why Jimenez is so good.
Another reason for his astounding effectiveness this year is that batters can't actually hit his pitches well. Jimenez doesn't strike out immense numbers of hitters, ranking just 25th in the majors in K rate. He's no control artist, either, as 51 pitchers walk fewer men per inning. Yet in 87.1 innings he has given up just 52 hits, the best rate in baseball, and of those hits just two have been home runs, as the movement of his pitches makes it nearly impossible to drive the ball.
You just have to watch Jimenez to see why. Most great pitchers rarely make the opposition appear as if they don't belong on his field; instead, they make them look as though they're merely having an off night. Not so with Jimenez. When he is pitching right, batters stare and gape as hard fastballs bore in on their hands and twist backwards as they cross the plate. They take wide hacks and tip the ball as if with a pool cue.
The Rockies' slender ace has obviously been lucky -- no pitcher can give up less than a run per game over a full third of a season without fair fortune. Still, to pretend that Jimenez has shown no special ability to make hitters swing spastically at balls that no one could hit is to ignore exactly what makes him so good: the ability to make the best hitters in the world look like fools.
It would be too much to say that Jimenez has been coasting on the raw strength of his arm; he isn't a mere thrower. Even his greatest admirers, though, would allow that he has nothing like the strategic mind of Martinez or Maddux in their primes, and that his main strength is his ability to let the ball go and watch it move. Even the most cultivated fan with the least use for a pitcher whose specialty is the hard pitch has to be wondering, though: What will happen if he learns how to put the ball exactly where he wants it? And how good will he be then?