The Quiet Assassin

July 04, 2010

His teammates can barely hear his voice, but Ubaldo Jimenez's performance speaks loud and clear: He's as good as it gets

Ubaldo Jimenez draws up his left leg, rears back and extends his right arm behind him, as if he's reaching into his back pocket for the pitch. In the moment before he lurches forward, the question hangs in the air: What will it be? The Rockies righthander's fastball is a missile that might dip, dart or dive as it crosses home plate. His changeup, delivered from the same arm slot and with the same arm speed, buzzes toward hitters 10 mph slower and collapses with as much as a 10-inch break toward the dirt. His curveball, too, drops out of sight, like a pool ball into a pocket. Jimenez also has a slider, a splitter and a cutter—six pitches in all, a staggering arsenal that has not been seen "perhaps since Juan Marichal," says Bob Apodaca, Colorado's pitching coach.

In the second inning of a game against the Giants earlier this season, the hitter is San Francisco shortstop Juan Uribe. The pitch out of Jimenez's hand is a 99-mph fastball that screams toward the catcher's right knee, a good five inches outside; abruptly scuds, like a Wiffle ball, toward the righthanded Uribe; and finally drops, preposterously, into the catcher's mitt over the heart of the plate. It is a called third strike, and slo-mo replays of the backdoor heater will be dissected like the Zapruder film on baseball websites under such headings as DID UBALDO JIMENEZ THROW THE BEST PITCH EVER? After the game, a shutout to beat Tim Lincecum, Giants third baseman Pablo Sandoval states the obvious. "Best pitcher in the National League," he says of Jimenez, even as Lincecum, winner of the last two NL Cy Young Awards, dresses a few lockers away.

This is being hailed as the Year of the Pitcher, but no hurler has come close to matching the brilliance of Jimenez, Colorado's quiet, humble ace. The 26-year-old lives with his parents, who have followed him from the family's native Dominican Republic, in a loft apartment in downtown Denver. He walks the three blocks to and from the ballpark, often without being stopped for an autograph or a photo. Rockies manager Jim Tracy calls him Chief, not because of Jimenez's stature in the clubhouse but because he is heard from about as often as the mute Native American character in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

But NL hitters know: Right now Jimenez is the Baddest Pitcher on the Planet, a 6'4", 215-pound intimidator so effective in his fifth major league season that for a while it looked as if he might challenge Bob Gibson's modern ERA record of 1.12, set in 1968. Even after he allowed a season-high six runs in 5 2/3 innings in a no-decision against the Red Sox on June 23, Jimenez's numbers were startlingly good: He was 13--1 with an 1.60 ERA, and had allowed two runs or fewer in 13 of his 15 starts. On April 17 he tossed a no-hitter against the Braves, and from May 15 through June 6 he had a franchise-record run of 33 scoreless innings. Assuming he pitches every fifth day, Jimenez will make 34 starts this season. Having won 86.7% of his outings through Sunday, he was on pace for 29 victories, which would be the highest total since the Tigers' Denny McLain won 31 in 1968. Even coming close to that would be an astonishing feat, given that Jimenez pitches in an era of bandbox ballparks—the Rockies' Coors Field is the most hitter-friendly park in baseball history—shrinking strike zones and lineups that are deeper and more patient than ever.

A 31--28 career pitcher with no All-Star appearances entering this season, Jimenez seems to have emerged out of thin air. The Rockies, though, have long been waiting for his breakout. "Even going back to the minors, I can't tell you how many times a guy would get to second, and all he'd want to do is talk about how filthy Ubaldo is," says second baseman Clint Barmes, who rose through the Colorado system with Jimenez. "He has always had the weapons. It was just a question of when he was going to harness them."

Typically, a catcher has five or six signs he can flash to his pitcher. "For Ubaldo, there are 12," says Miguel Olivo, who signed with Colorado last winter and has caught all of Jimenez's starts. "I needed all of spring training to learn them." This spring, when Jimenez began playing around with a cut fastball, Olivo and Apodaca had to get creative. The catcher's sign for the cutter? His middle finger.

Jimenez's best pitch, a two-seam fastball, is widely regarded as the best in the game, better than Lincecum's changeup and Mariano Rivera's cutter. Last year Jimenez's fastball averaged 96.1 mph, the highest since Baseball Info Solutions began tracking velocities eight years ago. This year it's up to 96.4 mph. "It's hard enough to catch up to that," says Colorado first baseman Todd Helton, "but it's the movement he gets that's making him unhittable. When guys get to first base, I ask them what it's like to face that kind of heat. This year everyone is saying how much the ball is moving."

Jimenez's childhood hero was fellow Dominican Pedro Martinez, and though Jimenez is built nothing like the three-time Cy Young winner (Martinez was slight and less than six feet tall) there are similarities between the two. Jimenez, like Martinez in his prime, is lean and as loose and flexible as a gymnast. Like his idol, Jimenez has long, spindly fingers, which helps explain why he gets so much late action on his pitches. He grips the ball deep in his hand, allowing his fingers to maintain contact with the seams longer than most pitchers do. The result is a tighter, more violent spin on the ball—and exaggerated movement. Jimenez further generates velocity with an unorthodox delivery, one "you wouldn't teach any kid," says Rolando Fernandez, the Rockies scout who signed him as a 17-year-old in the Dominican in 2001. Jimenez pulls his right arm back farther than any other pitcher in baseball, seeming to pause with the arm outstretched before he windmills forward. "He gets tremendous speed on his arm action," says Fernandez, who likens it to a slingshot.

The difference for Jimenez this year, according to Apodaca, has been "trimming the fat off the delivery. Now, there's no more needless movement. He's so much more consistent."

Helton adds, "We all know that every time he takes the mound, Ubaldo has a chance to throw a no-hitter. He can make mistakes and still throw one." Indeed, Jimenez was far from his best when he tossed the first no-hitter in Rockies history, in April. During the game he felt so lethargic that fellow starter Jorge de la Rosa handed him a can of Red Bull and an ammonia capsule in the dugout. After he walked five Atlanta batters over the first four innings, Apodaca persuaded his starter to work only out of the stretch. Jimenez retired the next 15 batters.

Before the game Olivo had predicted that Jimenez would throw a no-no that night and asked Apodaca how much he'd pay if it happened. The coach's wager: $1,000. "The way he's pitching," says Olivo, "that's not a bad bet to make before every game."

Among the congratulatory messages Jimenez received the next day was a voice mail from Martinez, who had become a friend since meeting Jimenez three years ago. "Let's go! Let's go! Let's go! Time to go to work and go for a run!" Martinez screamed into the phone. Martinez may have been joking, but Jimenez was already out pounding the pavement in Atlanta. "I wandered down to the hotel lobby at 7:30, and here comes Ubaldo, drenched in sweat," says Apodaca. "He's a beast."

Jimenez runs five or six miles every morning following a start, no matter how many pitches he logged the night before, no matter how late the game ended. He runs sprints in the outfield on the other days between his starts. "I watch guys who pitched for a long time, guys like Pedro, Jose Lima and Jose Mesa," he says. "When I first got into the league, playing against the Padres, I'd see Trevor Hoffman every afternoon running out in the field. All those guys had long careers, and they all ran. Now, if I don't run my five or six miles, my arm feels sore."

His conditioning is a big reason why the Rockies believe Jimenez can sustain his excellence deep into the summer. He is all sinewy muscle—"not an ounce of body fat on him," says Barmes. Jimenez is the rare pitcher who gets sharper and throws harder as a game progresses. The final pitch of his no-hitter, the 128th, was a 97-mph fastball with a nine-inch break that Braves catcher Brian McCann grounded weakly to second—a pitch with as much life as his first one.

Jimenez's work ethic comes from his parents, who raised him and his sister, Leidys, in a San Cristóbal ghetto known as Hoyo Caliente—Hot Hole. Ubaldo Sr. was a bus driver and security guard, and his wife, Ramona, a nurse. They viewed education as Ubaldo Jr.'s ticket out of poverty. On weekends he and Leidys took long bus rides to attend three-hour English classes in Santo Domingo. "I played baseball from eight in the morning until noon, and after games I'd take the bus to Santo Domingo," says Jimenez. "I was always so tired, I'd fall asleep. My friends back home were having fun, having girlfriends—I didn't have anything. I was always pretty angry. But now I thank my parents."

Ubaldo Jr. had posters of Martinez on his wall, but he was a Braves fan. (He still wears his socks high like Chipper Jones.) By the time he was 16, he could throw a fastball in the high 80s. The Mets offered him a $20,000 signing bonus, but his parents turned it down, telling the team to get back to them after Ubaldo had graduated from high school. The next year the Rockies offered $50,000, and Jimenez's family accepted under one condition—that he be allowed to complete the two months of school he had left for his diploma. Ramona also made the Rockies agree to pay for medical school for Ubaldo if baseball didn't pan out. (Leidys, now 28, is completing her medical residency in the Dominican.) Says Jimenez, "I dreamed about playing baseball in the major leagues, but I always thought I'd be a doctor."

The Rockies signed him in 2001, the same year they committed $172 million to free agents Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle, pitchers who would come to symbolize pitching futility at Coors Field. (Hampton and Neagle had a combined record of 40--51 in their years with Colorado.) In their 18-year history the Rockies have never had a 20-game winner or a Cy Young winner. But Jimenez, who is 5--0 with a 2.95 ERA in six home outings this year, is proving that pitchers can thrive, even dominate, in the high altitude of the Rocky Mountains. "This ballpark has played with a lot of minds," says Barmes, who concedes that Coors hasn't been quite as much of a hitter's haven since the team began storing game balls in a humidor in 2002 to replicate conditions closer to sea level. "But the way [Jimenez is] going, it wouldn't matter if we had a humidor or not when he pitched."

Jimenez knows that his education has only begun. He studies and learns from the game's greats, such as Roy Halladay ("I love watching him locate his pitches—it's like watching a video game"), Zack Greinke ("Every pitch is going to be down, but he's also never scared to challenge hitters") and Lincecum ("I've noticed that this year he's not throwing as hard as he was last year, but he's still one of the best. You see that as long as you locate your pitches, you can get anyone out").

With so much mound talent around the majors, it's a good time to be a student of pitching. And the humble hero from Hoyo Caliente wants to be the best of this suddenly pitching-rich era. "That's something that people don't see because of his personality," says Fernandez. "He may not show it, but he is the ultimate competitor."

Last January, against the wishes of his agent, Jimenez signed a four-year, $10 million deal with Colorado. He is earning a relatively paltry $1.25 million this season, making the pitcher who may already have the NL Cy Young locked up the biggest bargain in baseball. "I know that a lot of people say that I should have waited, that I could have signed for a lot more," Jimenez says, "but mentally it made a big difference for me. I could focus on pitching. That has been big for me." He adds, "And maybe my next contract will be huge."

He laughs. It is nearing noon in Denver. Another game looms. There is work to be done, a long season still ahead. But at this moment in Colorado, anything feels possible.

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"We all know that every time he takes the mound, Ubaldo has a chance to throw a no-hitter," says Helton.

Jimenez learned as a child that hard work was his ticket out of a ghetto called Hoyo Caliente—the Hot Hole.

"People don't see [it] because of his personality," says Fernandez. But Ubaldo "is the ultimate competitor."

Year of The Padre?

Starters aren't the only stars this season. Meet the lights-out San Diego bullpen

It was time, Padres relievers Heath Bell and Mike Adams decided, that baseball's best bullpen had its own nickname. Two weeks ago, in the clubhouse before a game, Bell and Adams, the most senior members of San Diego's relief corps, distributed T-shirts designed by Adams's tattoo artist and emblazoned with the handle they had chosen for their unit: THE PEN-ITENTIARY. It may not have the zing of, say, the Nasty Boys, but Bell and Adams still pretty much nailed it: The group has had National League offenses under lockdown all season long.

The biggest surprise in baseball this season has been the Padres, who have spent most of the first half atop the NL West and led the Giants by 4½ games through Sunday. San Diego's offense ranked 14th in the league in runs scored, 14th in slugging and 13th in home runs—yet the team owned the best run-differential (+65), in large part thanks to a bullpen that led the NL with a 2.49 ERA and an impressive strikeout rate (1.10 K's per inning). "This team lives and dies with low-scoring games," says reliever Luke Gregerson, "and we take pride in knowing the team can count on us."

With righthanded flamethrowers Gregerson, Adams and Bell working the seventh, eighth and ninth innings, respectively, the Padres were a league-best 16--10 in one-run games at week's end and had 17 wins in which they had scored three runs or fewer. "They have one of the best bullpens I've ever seen," says Mets rightfielder Jeff Francoeur, whose team, over a three-game series in mid-June, struck out 10 times and scored one run in eight innings against San Diego's relievers. "It seems like everyone throws 95 and has a big-time out pitch."

In his second season as the team's closer Bell, 32, a pear-shaped 250-pounder with a mid-90s fastball and a looping 12-to-6 curveball, had cashed in 21 saves in 24 opportunities and allowed just one home run in 32 2/3 innings. The 31-year-old Adams (40 K's in 36 innings and a league-high 21 holds) has flummoxed hitters with his hellacious cutter. The MVP of the staff, however, has been Gregerson, 26, a future closer whose preposterous 51-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio was the best in baseball. "To have a guy lock down that seventh inning has been huge for us," says pitching coach Darren Balsley. "He's pitched in as many high-pressure innings as anyone."

A 28th-round pick in 2006, Gregerson began to emerge as a rookie late last season, when he did not allow a run in 23 of his final 25 appearances. His best pitch is a slider that he throws more than 60% of the time; it's nearly unhittable because it "appears like a fastball for a longer period of time than most sliders, before it breaks," says Balsley. "Any hitter who has seen the scouting report knows it's coming, but they can't do anything about it."

The Padres' bullpen would make them formidable in a short series in October. Twenty years ago the Nasty Boys, the Reds' famously churlish band of relievers, led their team to an improbable World Series title; San Diego believes the Pen-itentiary can do the same. "This is a very unselfish group of guys," says Balsley. "They understand their roles, and they know that when they each do their job, together they're as good as any group out there."

PHOTOPhotograph by GREG NELSONU-TURN Jimenez was three games over .500 in his career before this year, but now he's on a historic pace for wins in one season. PHOTOPOUYA DIANAT/GETTY IMAGESIDOL WORSHIP After being mobbed by teammates following his no-no, Jimenez got a call from his hero, Martinez. THREE PHOTOSDERRICK TUSKAN/ICON SMIJAILHOUSE ROCKS The Padres are punchless, but Gregerson, Bell and Adams (from top) and the rest of the Pen-itentiary keep the team's slim leads well-guarded. PHOTOJAMIE SCHWABEROW/RICH CLARKSON AND ASSOCIATESINTO THIN AIR With his power repertoire, Jimenez has dispelled the notion that pitchers can't thrive at Coors.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)