Ubaldo Jimenez’s baseball career is well-documented. His ups and downs in the major leagues have been thoroughly dissected.
A wunderkind who once was among baseball’s best young pitchers, Jimenez’s career trajectory plummeted dramatically in the past few seasons before he resuscitated it with a tremendous second half last year.
And that led the Orioles to give the 30-year-old right-hander a four-year, $50 million deal, the most lucrative contract the club has ever handed out to a free-agent pitcher.
Perhaps the biggest mystery surrounding this 2014 team is which Jimenez the club signed — the one who befuddles hitters with a funky delivery and offerings that dip and dash around the plate, or the one who can’t seem to figure out his mechanics and throw strikes.
That’s obviously an important part of Jimenez’s story. But here’s what you really need to know about the man who will make his Orioles debut Wednesday night on the Camden Yards mound against the defending World Series champion Boston Red Sox.
Jimenez loves to dance.
“I do,” Jimenez said, breaking into a huge smile. “I like to dance a lot. Latin dances, hip hop, everything, merengue, you name it.”
During spring training, he had a picture of himself dancing and showed it to infielder Alexi Casilla, who has known Jimenez since they were boys playing Little League against each other in San Cristobal, Dominican Republic.
“I just laughed. I mean, I don’t imagine Ubaldo like that, dancing,” Casilla said. “I know his personality, so that’s funny.”
Since he arrived in Sarasota, Fla., in February, Jimenez has fit perfectly into the Orioles’ tight clubhouse. He’s polite and friendly, but also fairly quiet, certainly unassuming and unquestionably serious about his craft.
Fellow starter Chris Tillman said he didn’t see Jimenez without a smile on his face for an entire month. And Jimenez said he already feels like he’s one of the guys.
So does that mean that he considered entering the club’s annual spring training talent show to put on a dancing exhibition?
“No, no way,” he said, chuckling again. “But I do like to dance a lot. And I like to read books. I’ll read anything, about life, history. I like to read. That’s pretty much all I do. I like to spend a lot of time with my family. I like to have fun. I like to smile.”
Starting next week, his parents will fly in from the Dominican Republic and stay with the 6-foot-5, 210-pound pitcher in Baltimore throughout most of the season. They’ve been doing that since 2007. He gets home-cooked meals and all the benefits of living with his mother and father. All while being a multimillionaire and star athlete.
“In Latin countries, you don’t leave your parents’ house until you get married,” Jimenez said. “It’s not like here, when you get to be 18, and you can live anywhere you want. In Latin countries, you could be 40 years old, but if you aren’t married, you stay with your parents.”
It’s his way of giving back while also keeping himself grounded. His mother was a nurse, and his father, a disciplined military man, worked two jobs each day after he left the service — driving a bus for an insurance company and working as a security guard. His parents wanted the best for Jimenez and his sister — who is studying to be a doctor in the Dominican Republic — and the couple often worked six days a week to make it happen.
“They did everything for me when I was growing up, for me and my sister,” Jimenez said. “And now I have a chance to do that for them.”
His strong sense of family and simple, quiet lifestyle was not lost on the Orioles when they decided to give him an unprecedented contract.
“He is a quality human being. I had a lot of people talk about it,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “Very respectful, but, at the same time, competitive.”
Fair or not, Jimenez is considered the missing piece for a team that believes it can make a deep run into the postseason this year.
Despite winning 85 games last season, the Orioles rotation had the fourth-worst ERA in the American League. The club needed a significant upgrade — and yet that didn’t seem likely since the organization had never given a free-agent pitcher a deal of more than three years.
Widely considered one of the five best available starters this offseason, Jimenez initially appeared to be well out of the Orioles’ price range. But the market suddenly stalled for more than a month while Japanese right-hander Masahiro Tanaka chose a team. Once it kickstarted again, there seemed to be a limited pool of suitors remaining for Jimenez, partially because he was tied to draft-pick compensation and clubs didn’t want to lose a first-round selection.
The Orioles first talked with Jimenez in Orlando, Fla., during the general manager’s meetings in November, according to executive vice president Dan Duquette.
“When we met him, I was just very impressed with his presence and his calmness,” Duquette said. “He just impressed me as a really terrific athlete. His breaking stuff is good. He gets out righties and lefties. But, personally, he is a very impressive kid and, physically, very dependable.”
Jimenez, who has made 30 or more starts in six consecutive seasons, debuted in the majors with the Colorado Rockies in 2006 at age 22. By the next year, he was pitching in the World Series, and in 2010, he emerged as one of baseball’s best pitchers, finishing third in the National League Cy Young balloting.
But within a year, things fell apart for Jimenez and the Rockies, and it took him a few years to recover. There are plenty of theories as to what happened. His explanation is simple. He dealt with minor, nagging injuries, tried to pitch through them and lost effectiveness and confidence.
“After a couple small injuries, it just threw my mechanics out of whack,” Jimenez said. “I couldn’t do it, and that’s when I got in trouble.”
There was also a sense that his relationship with the Rockies soured after his amazing 2010 season. That offseason, Colorado doled out huge contract extensions to shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and outfielder Carlos Gonzalez. But they didn’t further reward Jimenez — and years later, that may have worked in the Orioles’ favor.
“He always seems to just barely miss in getting one of those big commitments. I know he got a little distraught in Colorado. They told him supposedly they were going to do something, and they weren’t able to do it,” Showalter said. “He seems to really be at peace [now] with where he is, and his decision, and knowing that people want him, and how much we need him.”
He was traded to the Cleveland Indians in July 2011 for four players who never panned out for the Rockies. His time in Cleveland didn’t begin well. In 2012, he led the American League with 17 losses and a career-worst 5.40 ERA. He was basically pitching for his career last year — and was 7-4 with a 4.56 ERA in 19 games during the first half. But after the All-Star break, Jimenez thrived — posting a 1.82 ERA in his final 13 starts.
“He used the first half of last year really to develop his ability to repeat his mechanics,” Cleveland Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway said. “And once he felt like he could repeat those mechanics, he started throwing the ball over the plate because he had confidence he could do so. And then he had the success.”
There was no secret ingredient, no magic wand, Callaway said. Jimenez kept working tirelessly to repeat that herky-jerky delivery that gives hitters fits. In addition, Callaway said Jimenez finally accepted that he could no longer throw 100 mph and overpower hitters, but instead needed to use his sinker and off-speed arsenal to keep the opposition off-balance.
“Everybody has to go through that stage at some point in their careers, and I think it happened a little sooner than he would have liked. I think he would have hoped it had happened at 33, 34,” Callaway said. “When he was throwing 100 [mph] … he could just throw his best stuff up there and say, ‘Here you go, try to hit it.’ So what he really did [in Cleveland] is learn how to pitch.”
The transformation was stunning. In September, he was 4-0 with a 1.09 ERA in six games, striking out 51 batters and walking just seven in 41 1/3 innings.
That’s the guy the Orioles believed they signed to a long-term deal. And that’s the guy who Callaway thinks Jimenez has become. The Indians pitching coach said it was tough to see Jimenez leave Cleveland, but he can’t blame his pupil for cashing in on his immense talent.
“I’m pulling for him, more because of the kind of person he is than just because he was on my team,” Callaway said. “I really want him to succeed because of the great person he is.”
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