Houston – Here’s a window into Joe Jimenez’s character: He said being selected to represent the Tigers in the All-Star Game Tuesday wasn’t the pinnacle or his crowning achievement – he called it a beginning.
“There’s a lot of things to accomplish yet,” he said. “It starts now. I’m looking forward to having a great career and I am going to work hard for it. There are a lot of things I have in mind. I have a lot of dreams.”
Some players, especially those as physically gifted as Jimenez who have been on the fast track since they were teenagers, expect greatness, as if it’s an entitlement. For Jimenez, it’s his white whale and he’s chasing it with all his might.
“He’s been fun to watch,” said Tigers veteran reliever Alex Wilson, who has been among those who have helped groom Jimenez. “He’s a good kid. He listens. He wants to learn. He wants to do things right and that’s a big part of it.
“He realizes where he wants to be in this game and you can see him digging. He wants more.”
Jimenez doesn’t just want to be a big-league closer; he wants to be a great big-league closer and he’s more than willing to pay the cost. That’s why he spent a month and a half in Los Angeles last fall working out at the Velocity Sports Performance facility.
That’s why he spent the rest of the winter at the TigerTown facility in Lakeland reshaping his body and his diet under the guidance of Tigers’ minor-league strength coordinator Steve Chase.
“He’s a sponge,” catcher James McCann said. “He’s talking to Francisco Liriano a lot about his slider and change-up. He worked a lot with Boz (former pitching coach Chris Bosio) and with Andy (pitching coach Rick Anderson). You talk about a guy with a work ethic you wish everybody had – he is constantly trying to get better.”
Jimenez didn’t necessarily need to fail to understand greatness wasn’t a given. But in baseball, everybody fails. And he failed spectacularly in his rookie season last year. He was tagged for 26 earned runs in 19 innings. He had allowed just 29 earned runs in five minor-league seasons. He gave up just eight runs total in parts of two seasons at the Triple-A level.
He had to feel shell-shocked. But through it all, he kept his head high and maintained an air of confidence. He never allowed himself to look or feel defeated. That, too, was revelatory.
“If you are going to be the guy, you are going to see failure at some point in your career,” Wilson said. “It’s all about how you handle it and bounce back from it. He did it like a total professional.”
Taking over with confidence
At age 23, Jimenez has firmly established himself as the Tigers’ eighth-inning set-up man. He’s 4-1 with a 2.72 ERA, striking out 48 in 43 innings. Opponents are hitting .205 against him.
“I think it’s just being healthy,” Wilson said. “Last year he had the back issue and he missed some time. As much as he says it didn’t bother him, I think it was a big thing. Especially for a pitcher, as rotational as we have to be. Joe came into camp healthy. He worked his butt off all winter.
“And he was able to gain the confidence he lost during spring training. He punched out the world in the spring.”
Jimenez dominated the minor leagues with an upper-90s fastball, but last year, his velocity dipped dramatically. He was between 94-95 mph and he began using his secondary pitches more often. This season, the average velocity on his fastball is 96.5 mph and he’s touched 98.
Opponents are hitting just .198 off his fastball, which he is throwing 66 percent of the time, with a 25.7 percent swing-and-miss rate. Last year, hitters bashed his fastball at a .354 clip, with a 21.9 percent whiff rate (Statcast).
“I just think it’s confidence,” McCann said. “He made a couple minor, minor mechanical adjustments, but it’s confidence. He makes his debut last year and he’s not throwing as hard as everyone thought he was going to throw, and then it’s, ‘Why aren’t you throwing hard?’
“There’s not always a simple answer to that. But he kept working. He’s constantly trying to get better in the weight room. He’s trying to get better mechanics. He talks to me about how to pitch certain hitters. He just wants to learn.”
Manager Ron Gardenhire played a role in Jimenez’s turnaround, too. Although Jimenez was dominant in spring training, he never committed him to a role. He never, in fact, committed him to a roster spot until the final week.
He very strategically let Jimenez work and then eased him into the season with minimal expectations.
“We tried to get him over the hump a little bit,” Gardenhire said. “He came back this year, had some success this spring and maybe part of it was the way we used him. We went pretty easy with him early, then slowly backed him up into later-inning, higher-leverage situations.
“We started to think this guy’s got a chance and we slowly built him into it. I think he got some confidence and figured out he could get them out here. And he just ran with it.”
To the point where, after closer Shane Greene came off the disabled list Friday, Gardenhire strongly considered keeping Jimenez in the closer’s role. He didn’t make the switch, but it will be something that remains on the table in the second half of the season.
“He’s really taken over that eighth-inning role,” Wilson said. “He’s got to a spot where he knows how to work. He’s always been a closer in the minor leagues. It’s a big thing for him that he’s able to start and finish his own inning. That was huge for him because before, he’d never done anything else.
“As time goes on, you’ll see him be able to do that four-out gig a lot better. But you give him three outs in the eighth inning and he’s pretty dominant.”
'Enjoy the moment'
The change in diet and the reshaping of his big, strong body has helped Jimenez stay healthy and it’s helped him maintain proper mechanics – and that in turn has helped turn up the heat on his fastball. It’s also helped convince the Tigers that his dominance is sustainable.
“Yeah, if he doesn’t build up anymore he’ll be fine,” Gardenhire said, half-joking. “He’s a big kid, so he’s got to watch himself. He can get out of whack. But he works really hard and that’s the big thing. The only way he’s going to maintain it is to stay in good shape.
“If he can do that and keep his arm healthy, he’ll be fine. He does a lot of work, I know that. But he gets big plates of food, too.”
Jimenez could smile at that.
“Obviously, the work I did this winter was a big deal,” he said. “You want to train your body to play the whole season and be healthy. It was huge to make that a priority in the offseason. I feel real good right now and I know in the next few years in the offseason I will do the exact same thing.”
There were a lot of tears last week when Jimenez learned he’d made his first All-Star team. He’s anxious to get to Washington and hang out with five other Puerto Rican-born All-Stars. It will be like a reunion of Team Puerto Rico from the World Baseball Classic.
He said it was validation for his perseverance and hard work. He said it was an honor to represent the Tigers. Mostly, though, it the first step in his dance.
“I still can’t believe it,” he said. “I still don’t feel like an All-Star. But I am grateful. I appreciate everyone who made it possible. I just want to go and have fun. I know there is going to be a lot of activities. I just want to go and enjoy the moment.”
MLB All-Star Game
When: 8 Tuesday
Where: Nationals Park, Washington, D.C.
Tigers: Their representative is reliever Joe Jimenez
Home Run Derby: 8 Monday (ESPN)