Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Ubaldo Jimenez: The Pitcher That Got Away From The Mets

In 2000, Mike Hampton helped the Mets win the National League pennant. After the Mets lost the World Series to the Yankees, Hampton left New York for the better school systems in Colorado. (The $121 million given to him over the course of the eight years he signed for had nothing to do with it.)

Apparently, Hampton wasn't the only pitcher to turn down money from the Mets in 2000, only to sign with Colorado. According to Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports, fireballer Ubaldo Jimenez was offered $20,000 by the Mets to sign with the team after he turned 16 in 2000. Why did he turn them down? Yet again, school was cruel to the Mets.

The teenaged Jimenez was still in high school at the time the Mets made their offer. But his parents chose the benefit of an education over the temptation of quick financial success.

When recounting the reasons for not signing with the Mets in 2000, Jimenez went on to say:

“My parents said no. They didn’t want me to sign until I finished high school. I always respected my parents, and I knew it was for my own good, so I didn’t sign. I always figured I was going to be a doctor anyway. I used to love medicine. My mom’s a nurse. It’s something I grew up seeing. Every time people got sick, my mom would be the one who helped make them better.”
So how did the Rockies sign Jimenez in 2001 at the age of 17, thereby negating his chance of becoming a doctor? It was pretty simple, really. When the Rockies’ director of Latin American operations paid the Jimenez family a visit, he promised that if Ubaldo signed with Colorado, they would allow him to finish high school. That was enough for Jimenez’s parents. After graduating from high school, Jimenez signed his first professional contract and joined the Rockies organization.

Since making his major league debut at the age of 22 in 2006, Jimenez has improved steadily each year and is now among the best (and lesser known) pitchers in the National League.

The Rockies inserted Jimenez into the starting rotation in 2007, just in time for their unexpected run to the World Series. In 15 starts with the Rockies, Jimenez was 4-4 with a 4.28 ERA, but he held opposing batters to a .228 batting average. He then turned it up a notch in the National League playoffs, giving up one run in 6.1 innings in his start against the Phillies in the NLDS, followed by five more innings of one-run ball against the Diamondbacks in the NLCS.

His luck (as well as the Rockies’ luck) ran out in the World Series, but he still pitched effectively in his one start against the Red Sox, giving up two runs in 4.2 innings of work. The 22-year-old pitched like a seasoned veteran in the playoffs, where many pitchers at the same age would have wilted in the national spotlight.

He followed up his rookie season by going 12-12 for Colorado in 2008. He lowered his ERA to 3.99 and opponents batted only .245 against him. More importantly, he was able to get his outs via the strikeout and the ground out, thereby overcoming the Coors Field effect. He racked up 172 strikeouts in 198.2 innings and allowed only 10 home runs.

In 2009, his improvement continued to where he became one of the best pitchers in the National League. Last season, Jimenez helped lead the Rockies to their second playoff appearance in three years. He finished with a 15-12 record, which tied for fourth in the NL in wins. He also lowered his ERA to 3.47 (which is very low for a pitcher who plays half his games at Coors Field) and struck out 198 batters in 218 innings, making him sixth in the NL in strikeouts. Opposing batters continued to be frustrated by Jimenez, as they only batted .229 against him last year.

How good is Jimenez? Only seven pitchers in 2009 finished in the top 25 in both strikeouts per nine innings and groundball percentage. Those seven pitchers were Tim Lincecum, Roy Halladay, Felix Hernandez, Adam Wainwright, Jon Lester, Josh Johnson and Ubaldo Jimenez. That’s a pretty exclusive class, if I must say so myself.

Ubaldo Jimenez has already been named the Rockies’ Opening Day starting pitcher by manager Jim Tracy. The 26-year-old will be among the favorites for this year’s NL Cy Young Award and will be counted on to help lead the Rockies back to the postseason.

Imagine what might have been if the Mets had offered to let him finish school instead of just throwing $20,000 on the table. The Mets might not be having such a problem in the starting rotation had Ubaldo Jimenez signed with them instead of the Rockies. Hindsight may be 20-20, but in the case of Jimenez, all the 20-20 needed to be was $20,000 and 20 more months in school. Too bad the it was the Rockies who had the foresight to do so.

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