From cocksure to not sure, Joe Jimenez on unstable ride with Tigers

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Tigers reliever Joe Jimenez has pitched four consecutive scoreless innings.

Cleveland — Joe Jimenez is conspicuous. Flat-out. There is no other way to describe his impact on the Tigers' success rate. His presence is conspicuous, his absence may be more so.

If Jimenez gets the Tigers through the eighth inning with the lead, they win. That scenario, though, hasn’t played out nearly enough, as closer Shane Greene’s 21 saves in 22 opportunities shows. Conversely, if Jimenez doesn’t get the ball in the eighth inning, the Tigers expected win rate drops precipitously.

That scenario has played out far too often.

And, proven fact, there are presently no other viable options for the eighth-inning setup role in the Tigers bullpen. Manager Ron Gardenhire and pitching coach Rick Anderson have twice taken Jimenez out of that role this season to disastrous results.

"I'm tired of messing around with this thing," Gardenhire said on June 12 after reinstating Jimenez in the eighth-inning role. "We're trying to find the right situations; well, we never have those situations. Just let Joe take the ball in the eighth inning and go shut it down."

Jimenez has pitched four consecutive scoreless innings, allowing only one hit with four strikeouts. But that’s not to say he’s back to the All-Star form he showed in the first half of last season. That’s not to say he’s fixed, by any stretch.

His last outing against the Pirates on Tuesday was a white-knuckled, 31-pitch adventure. As the inning went on, Jimenez’s demeanor went from aggressive to apprehensive, from cocksure to not sure. And by the 31st pitch, he looked emotionally spent.

Protecting a one-run lead, he gave up a single and walk, and he hit a batter to load the bases. Then he fell behind 2-0 on pinch-hitter Corey Dickerson.

 “When I went out to the mound, I said, ‘I’m not out here for no other reason but just to give you a breather,’” Anderson said. “’Just slow yourself down.’”

Jimenez was able to come back and get Dickerson on a groundout to end the inning. But it showed, again, how fragile his confidence is. The Pirates were steadfastly ignoring his slider, largely because they didn’t think he could or would throw it for strikes.

The more they laid off his slider, the more careful he tried to be with his fastball. He ended up throwing just three more strikes (17) than balls (14) in the inning.

“One of the things we’re trying to do is get him to be less predictable,” Anderson said. “And the thing is, what makes him not predictable is when he can command that slider and throw it for strikes. It’s all a process what we’re trying to do.

“That pitch is a big part of his arsenal.”

According to Statcast, Jimenez misses the strike zone 62 percent of the time with his slider. This is a pitch that hitters are 5 for 29 against. But it’s also just 29 balls put in play off a pitch he’s thrown 172 times. It’s too good a pitch to use as a chase pitch.

“I tell him, don’t waste pitches,” Anderson said. “The at-bat with Josh Bell (on Tuesday, which ended up being a strikeout). He got ahead (0-2) and threw three inside fastballs. He had him set up for the slider, why wait until 3-2 to throw it?

“Sometimes trying to strike out guys too much might be a factor. Just get ahead and put them away. You don’t have to make a perfect pitch.”

Anderson is working to get Jimenez to tweak the way he throws his slider.

“He tries to do too much with it,” he said. “We’re trying to loosen the grip on it and just let it break. Sometimes he wants to get on it and he leaves it over the plate, or sometimes he gets on it and he yanks it.

“Just been inconsistent with it.”

Looking deeper into the statistics shows what a bipolar run Jimenez is on so far this season.

His four-seam fastball rings the radar gun between 94-97 mph, depending on the night, with one of best spin rates in the game (2,528 rpm). Yet, hitters are barreling him up 11.6 percent of the time, which ranks in the bottom 7 percent in Major League Baseball.

“We are trying to get him to run that fastball up in the zone a little bit more,” Anderson said. “With his spin rate, he should have success with that.”

He has a 32 percent swing and miss rate, when he throws the fastball in the strike zone. He’s also given up four of his six home runs with it, two of them on the first pitch of an at-bat.

The point is, there is a more efficient, more dominant pitcher here. He’s shown it, but only in short stretches. The Tigers are banking on seeing it more consistently. Jimenez will be the closer if/when Greene is traded next month.

That transition can’t work if he’s needing 30 pitches to get through an inning.

“It’s going to negate a lot of his activity for us,” Anderson said. “If he has to throw 25 to 30 pitches every time out, we’re going to have to give him days off. We’d like to see him get ahead of hitters and put them away.

“Like I keep telling him, ‘With your stuff, you don’t have to be so fine.’”

The Tigers have put their trust in him. Now they wait for Jimenez to trust himself.

On deck: Indians

► Series: Three-game series at Progressive Field, Cleveland

First pitch: Friday — 7:10 p.m.; Saturday — 4:10 p.m.; Sunday — 1:10 p.m.

TV/radio: Friday and Sunday — FSD/97.1 FM; Saturday — FS1/97.1;

Probables: Friday — RHP Trevor Bauer (5-6, 3.41) vs. LHP Matthew Boyd (5-5, 3.35); Saturday — RHP Mike Clevinger (1-1, 2.70) vs. RHP Spencer Turnbull (3-6, 3.27); Sunday — RHP Zach Plesac (2-2, 2.56) vs. LHP Daniel Norris (2-5, 4.40).

Bauer, Indians: He dominated the Tigers last Sunday and earned his first career complete-game, four-hit shutout. He threw all six of his pitches, but his cutter was lethal. He got four swing and misses, 10 called strikes, and the eight cutters put in play had an average exit velocity of 76 mph. Softly struck.  

Boyd, Tigers: Boyd is coming off his rockiest start of the season, getting tagged for five runs (four earned) and six hits in four innings by the Royals in Omaha. But he’s been good against the Indians. He beat them in April and in five career starts at Progressive, he has a 3.76 ERA with 24 strikeouts in 26 innings.

Twitter: @cmccosky