Detroit — Joe Jimenez and the Tigers were both caught in a catch-22 last season.
Jimenez needed a more defined role to be able to settle in, gain confidence and be more effective. The Tigers needed him to pitch better to justify giving him a set role.
Neither happened. Jimenez ended up giving up 26 runs in 19 innings last season. It was a horror show for a power-armed right-handed pitcher who had dominated every rung of the Tigers minor-league system before last season.
But everything changed, first when general manager Al Avila hired Ron Gardenhire as his manager and Chris Bosio as pitching coach last winter.
“Since they hired Gardy and Boz, that was the best thing that happened to me,” Jimenez said. “They gave me confidence since the offseason. Boz called me in the offseason and gave me that from the start. It was huge for me.”
Bosio, after watching video and seeing Jimenez’s powerful body, his upper-90s fastball and his two secondary pitches, told Jimenez that he had a real chance to be a late-innings set-up man. He was the guy who had the tools to get the game to the ninth inning and to closer Shane Greene.
But he needed to hold up his end of the bargain. He needed to get his body in better shape, needed to get leaner — which Jimenez did, spending the entire winter at the TigerTown facility in Lakeland. Bosio also made a few mechanical adjustments, but mainly just told Jimenez to trust his stuff and go have fun.
“They just wanted me to go out there and do my thing,” Jimenez said. “That’s what I needed last year and I didn’t have it. Now I know when I am going to be pitching. Last year I had to be prepared from the first inning on, basically, because I just didn’t know.”
Jimenez has held up his end of the bargain, and then some. Over his last nine outings before Wednesday, he hadn’t allowed an earned run in 8.1 innings. Opponents hit .161 off him with 14 strikeouts in that stretch.
But he’s been good all year. According to Statcast data, he’s allowed two barrels (balls hit 95 mph or harder) out of 60 balls put in play. Opponents are hitting .176 with just 29 percent hard contact.
Last year, his fastball varied in velocity from the low-to-mid 90s. This year, he’s been at 96 and 97, and even up to 98 in his last couple of outings. Opponents are hitting .164 off the fastball with a 30.7 percent whiff rate.
He’s given up more hits with the slider (.350) but it’s a smaller sample size. He’s still getting 27.3 percent whiffs. The change-up, which he hasn’t used much over this recent stretch, is producing a 44-percent whiff rate.
“When I come out of the bullpen, they (the catchers) ask me how my pitches were in the bullpen and they see my warm-up,” Jimenez said. “That dictates what pitches I need to throw more than others. Obviously, the situation and scouting reports dictate it, too.
“But now, the difference is, I am feeling comfortable with all my pitches. The most important thing is I’ve been locating my fastball.”
Gardenhire talked on Tuesday about being wary of overusing Jimenez. His 28 appearances are the second most in the American League. But he also made it clear, “good relievers, they are going to pitch.”
That is fine and dandy with Jimenez.
“I would say, if they throw me more, that’s good for me,” he said. “I get used to it. I am ready every day. If I go a few days without throwing, I feel bad. The more I work, the better it is for my body.”
For now, Jimenez will continue to have the eighth inning. But if teams come calling for Greene closer to the trade deadline, and the Tigers can get a suitable package of prospects in return, Jimenez will move into the closer’s role he has been groomed for since the Tigers signed him.
“We’re just having fun right now playing baseball,” Jimenez said. “Win or lose, we are coming out every day and we are competing and having a blast. Everybody comes here every day ready to play. This has been good for us.”