No one needs a reminder about the state of the Detroit Tigers’ bullpen. As expected from a rebuilding team that has consistently struggled to find strong relievers, the Tigers currently rank in the bottom 10 in ERA, FIP, and WPA, and sit 20th in WHIP and RE24. This is painfully unsurprising given that no bullpen has a worse ERA over the past two seasons.
Correspondingly, most relief leaderboards are devoid of any Tigers representatives. The club hasn’t landed a reliever among the top 30 relief qualifiers in ERA, FIP, or fWAR since 2015, but that could change this year. Young Joe Jimenez has been surrounded by hype since his entrance into the organization, and he would not be the first highly-touted relief prospect to fall short if he never makes it big. However, his rapid start to 2018 shows that he might be a rare bright spot to develop out of the Detroit bullpen.
Jimenez had a rough go during his first major league experience, racking up a 12.32 ERA in 19 innings last season. None of his individual numbers were close to redeemable and he allowed at least one run in almost half of his appearances. Without one single thing to point at as a cause for his rocky start, many hoped an offseason of tweaking his pitches with a new coach would lead to an improved sophomore campaign.
So far, everything has happened according to plan. Jimenez leads the Tigers’ bullpen regulars with a 2.49 ERA, 2.44 FIP, 0.61 WPA, 0.7 fWAR, and 25 1/3 innings pitched. In other words, he has been the best Detroit reliever this season. And it’s not a matter of the lack of competition from the rest of the bullpen.
Manager Ron Gardenhire has been quick to notice Jimenez’s value. Out of 28 appearances this season, 19 have occurred in the eighth inning, very clearly defining a role for the young right-hander. There is no better indicator of the path on which the Tigers are taking him, which could culminate with Jimenez grabbing the closer’s role as soon as this fall.
While the term “shutdown reliever” may be a little ambitious at this point, Jimenez has been dominant so far this season. Only four (!) of his 28 appearances have led to an earned run being scored and nearly half of his outings have ended without a hit or walk. On the other side of the coin, a quarter of his games have seen him strikeout at least half of the batters he faced.
The improvement in Jimenez’s numbers has come from all over the board. A significant rise in soft contact rate (12.7 percent to 30.6 percent) coupled with a rise in fly ball rate to exactly 50 percent has dropped his BABIP from .403 last season to .292. His strikeout rate has jumped almost eight points up to 25 percent while his walk rate has dropped to 6.5 percent, and his contact rate has fallen to 75.6 percent as well.
These are a lot of numbers, but they all paint the same picture. Without really improving velocity, Jimenez has pitched much more effectively and reduced quality contact by opposing batters. As Brandon Day pointed out this spring, a change in fastball mechanics was a big focus for Jimenez. The results have been eye-popping. Fangraphs rates his fastball at 1.83 wFB/C (standardized runs by pitch), which sits 30th among all relievers in baseball. Just as important has been a vastly improved slider that Jimenez is commanding with much more authority than he did in his first season in the majors.
The volatility for young players is always high, and relievers can vary greatly from year to year, and even month to month. Therefore, giving Jimenez more time before crowning him the Closer of the Future would be wise at this point, but forgive most fans for being so excited. The Tigers have struggled to find any sort of consistency in the back of their bullpen, but they very well may have a cornerstone going forward. Everything Jimenez has shown this season points to this flamethrower being the real deal.