Untouchable Ubaldo Jimenez Worked His Way to Greatness
Three years later, Bob Apodaca and Ubaldo Jimenez each remember the conversation vividly. Jimenez was a struggling young pitcher with the Rockies. He had so many randomly moving parts that Apodaca, the Rockies pitching coach, compared him to the Tasmanian Devil, of Looney Tunes fame.
"Ubaldo, I see two pitchers standing right before me," Apodaca said, recalling the conversation to FanHouse. "I see the pitcher you are, and the pitcher I know you can be. I visualize the pitcher you can be. I can see the whole delivery. That pitcher is going to be great. This pitcher I see today is not great. He's struggling."
Jimenez nodded, listening intently.
"Do you want to be good or do you want to be great?" Apodaca asked.
"I want to be great."
"Do you know all the hard work it takes to be great?"
"Let's put that work in. I expect you to be great. I'm going to be harder on you and expect more from you and demand more from you because I know you can handle it, and I know you can do it. Are you willing to do that?"
Today, Jimenez is great. You could argue that Roy Halladay is still the best pitcher in the game, but there is no debating who is pitching the best. Jimenez is 10-1 with a 0.78 ERA, which is the lowest in history for a pitcher through his first 11 starts, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
Jimenez has pitched a no-hitter and a shutout and four other games in which he did not allow a run.
"It's an overmatch, like when Nolan Ryan was in his prime," said former big-league pitcher George Frazier, a Rockies television analyst.
The Ryan comparison is appropriate in more ways than one. Ryan was also a late bloomer, a pitcher with a powerful fastball but no idea where it was going. Ryan was a few years into his big-league career before he settled into a couple decades worth of dominance. It's obviously too early to suggest that Jimenez has a Ryan-like career in front of him, but at the moment he seems to have completed a similar breakthrough.
"It takes time, especially a young man who throws exceptionally hard, and has long legs, long limbs," Apodaca said. "Those guys take a little longer."
Jimenez is still just 26, only five months older than Tim Lincecum, but he took a much longer road to big-league stardom than did the Giants' ace. Lincecum was a top draft pick out of college and he was in the big leagues within a year.
Jimenez was a skinny 17-year-old when the Rockies signed him in 2001. Six long years later, he had reached the big leagues, but he was still a player with untapped potential when Apodaca pulled him aside and told the pitcher his vision.
Jimenez eagerly accepted the challenge of his pitching coach.
"I want to do everything to be great," Jimenez said this week. "That's what everyone's dream is, not just to be good, but to be great, to be one of the best. We started working hard every day. Not that I didn't work hard, but I started working harder. And probably getting smarter. I had always thrown hard, but now I learned how to pitch."
Rolando Fernandez spotted the combination of talent and work ethic a decade ago. The Rockies' director of international operations first saw Jimenez as a 16-year-old in San Cristobal, a small city just west of the Dominican capital, Santo Domingo. Jimenez lived there with his mother, a nurse; his father, a bus driver; and his older sister. They stressed education, which is apparent now by Jimenez's crystal-clear English.
Jimenez's father loved baseball, and Ubaldo was 7 or 8 when he decided that he was going to be a baseball player, even though he didn't quite understand the long road to becoming a major leaguer. Fernandez signed Jimenez, who was 6-foot-1 and 165 pounds, for $50,000.
"He was very projectable," said Fernandez. "He had the arm action that you'd want from a pitcher that age. He was throwing 86-89. He had a real feel for pitching. Above all, his makeup on and off the field was everything that you would ask."
After a couple of years getting acclimated to the professional game in the Dominican Summer League, Jimenez began slowly climbing the minor-league ladder in the U.S. All along he looked like a guy with talent, and a developing power fastball, but something was missing.
"He always threw hard," said catcher Chris Iannetta, who came through the minors with Jimenez. "He developed a slider along the way, and a split. He had a really good fastball and a plus curveball and a plus changep. His big issue was command."
Jimenez issued 325 walks in 655 minor league innings, an unacceptable total. He struggled to a 5.85 ERA in 2007 at Triple-A Colorado Springs, but because of injuries in the big leagues, he still ended up spending the second half in the Colorado rotation. He pitched just well enough to stick, riding along on the Rockies' magical run to the World Series.
That was the season that Jimenez took the dedication to his craft to a new level. He has improved steadily ever since. Apodaca said it was around the middle of last season that Jimenez truly arrived.
"He saw where he was falling short, so he made a concerted effort to really develop his delivery," Apodaca said. "The pitches didn't need developing. They just needed direction."
Jimenez refined the moving parts in his delivery to get more consistent command. He also learned a new approach to pitching, using his wide repertoire to get outs more quickly, instead of worrying about strikeouts. Apodaca also said he got more efficient out of the stretch, which has helped him pitch better with runners on base.
"He's drastically made improvements from just a year ago," Apodaca said.
Rockies catcher Miguel Olivo first worked with Jimenez during the 2009 World Baseball Classic. As recently as that tournament, just 15 months ago, Jimenez was mostly pitching with his fastball and his curve. Olivo, realizing that Jimenez had so much more in the tank, told him: "You are going to be the best one day."
Jimenez also got a chance to spend time with his idol, Pedro Martinez, during the WBC. Like all boys in the Dominican in the '90s, Jimenez grew up wanting to be like Martinez. In 2009, Martinez helped him get there.
"I made sure to talk to him all the time," Jimenez said. "He gave me some advice. We talked about mechanics, about how you are supposed to be thinking while you are pitching. How to set up a hitter."
Since the middle of last season, Jimenez has taken strides in the art of pitching, rather than simply throwing. Apodaca said he's gotten creative with his repertoire of six pitches: a fastball, curveball, slider, changeup, splitter and a cutter he added this spring. (How does a catcher with five fingers put down signals for a guy with six pitches, you ask? The sign for the cutter is just a middle finger. Honest.)
"I just think he understands what he needs to do," Iannetta said. "He understands how to use his command and he's not just going out and throwing. He's commanding the strike zone. He's locating his pitches and he realizes if he just throws strikes and lets guys make contact, he's going to be in the game a long time."
The result is one of the most dominating two-month stretches in recent baseball history. Jimenez has two scoreless streaks of 25 or more innings already this season. His current streak is 26 innings. If he throws four scoreless innings to start his next outing, on Sunday at Arizona, he will break the Rockies franchise record.
And the eyes of the Dominican Republic will be on him, just as they have been every time he's pitched this season. Jimenez has stepped into the footsteps of Juan Marichal and Martinez as the ultimate pitching icon from the Dominican.
"He's pretty big right now," said Fernandez, who still lives in the Dominican. "Everybody is watching the games. It doesn't matter what team people in the Dominican root for. When the Rockies are playing, everyone is watching Ubaldo and rooting for him. It started last year. It's pretty special."
Suggest to Jimenez that now he's a hero in the Dominican, and he just shakes his head and lets out a child-like giggle.
"What can I say? I'm just trying to do my job."
Ask him about all the attention that has been heaped upon him since his no-hitter, with more certain to come as he bears down on a possible start in the All-Star Game and perhaps the Cy Young award, and he gets shy.
"I don't even think about that," he said. "The only thing I think about is getting ready for every five days, to go out and get ready for my team."