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Player review: José Jiménez could be the Tigers’ closer of the past

Pitchers’ fall from grace has an uncertain future

Minnesota Twins v Detroit Tigers Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images

When the Detroit Tigers’ traded their closer, Shane Greene, to the Atlanta Braves at the trade deadline in 2019, Joe Jimenez inherited the ninth inning role that had his name on it for the past few seasons. He was the Tigers’ lone all star in 2018 and “It was just a matter of time”, we thought, before Jimenez takes over as the Tigers’ closer. Well, that time may have come and gone, unless he can figure out how to keep the ball in the ballpark.

Things have not gone as planned for Jimenez, now 25, who has made 183 appearances and recorded 17 saves, but carries a career ERA of 5.38 with a 1.37 WHIP, with a HR/9 ratio of 1.59 in his career. That’s not going to cut it in the major leagues, and certainly not for a closer.

Jimenez continues to strike batters out at an impressive pace, whiffing almost 11 batters per nine frames. His walk rate of 3.29 BB/9 wouldn’t be so bad if he did not serve up so many home run balls.

He lost the closer’s role during the 2020 season, a campaign where he posted a 7.15 ERA with a 1.37 WHIP, but a career high HR/9 ratio of 2.79 dingers per nine innings pitched. His 23 innings pitched during the COVID shortened season are just a small sample, but unfortunately the numbers are part of a trend that has been moving in the wrong direction. Jimenez posted a negative -0.5 fWAR for the season, as he was relegated to low leverage pitching situations.

With over three years of service time under his belt, Jimenez is now eligible for arbitration for the first time. After making a $585,000 salary, prorated down to $216,500 in 2020, he is projected to earn $1 million to $1.7 million in 2021. The upside that got him the closer role a year ago should be enough to convince the Tigers to pay the fare to find out whether Jimenez can restore that promise. It’s just a modest investment at this time, as Jimenez will not be eligible for free agency until the 2024 season, and he has an option that can be used if needed.

At the center of his problems, like so many other Tigers’ pitchers- starters and relievers alike, is an inability to keep the ball in the park. 15 of the 18 runs he allowed in 2020 came when he allowed home runs. Other than the homers, Jimenez has not been hit hard by opposing batters, holding them to a .254 career batting average. He managed to reduce his BB ratio in 2020, but that’s not going to help much if he clears the bases so frequently.

Jimenez is mainly a fly ball pitcher, with a GB ratio around 30 percent. His 95 mph fastball that can be dialed up to the upper 90’s is electric when he’s on target. Zips projects him to register a 3.59 ERA in 2021, with a HR ratio of 1.01 to go with 11.78 K/9 innings and hold opponents to a batting average of .224. That should land him back in a late inning role in the Tigers’ bullpen.

Chris Fetter, the Tigers’ highly acclaimed new pitching coach from the University of Michigan, has several high profile young starting pitchers to work with as they break into the major leagues. There are also a few relief pitchers who could benefit from some adjustments- none moreso than the Tigers’ former closer of the future, Joe Jimenez.