How I became a Joe Jimenez groupie

Editor's note: this post makes use of the standard 20/80 scouting scale, so here's the skinny -- 50 is average, 60 is above average, 70 is "plus-plus," and 80 is flat-out elite. Going the other direction, 40 is below average, and anything below 40 is too embarrassing to talk about. Cool? Cool.

Joe Jimenez came to my back yard to pitch for the West Michigan Whitecaps in 2015, and it took seeing him in all of two outings before I was hooked. Within four or five outings, it was obvious we had something special on our hands, and after that ... well, hell, it was just automatic: Big Joe is coming into the game to close it down, the executioner has arrived, we'll all be going home within a matter of minutes.

The fastball is what stood out immediately. I mean, duuuuuh. This 20-year-old kid with the legs like tree trunks, whipping the ball towards home plate consistently at 96, 97, 98 MPH. It became a game after a while, watching the scoreboard radar gun to see how long it would take him to hit triple digits. Haha! There it is! 100 MPH! Joe, you beast!

In that first year, Jimenez was all about the fastball. That was his setup pitch, his out pitch, his you-know-I'm-gonna-throw-it-but-you-still-can't-hit-it pitch, and to hang anything less than an 80 grade on it would be irresponsible and silly. It's an elite fastball, not only for its velocity, but for its life.

Fastballs are hard enough to hit when they're in the high 90's, but they're downright lethal when they feature late arm-side movement.

Batters would swing -- oh boy, would they ever try -- but they'd swing late, or they'd swing at the wrong section of air space, and they'd look silly afterwards. He finished the season with a K/9 of 12.8, which is what you've seen when watching Greg Holland, or 2013 Koji Uehara, or even Aroldis Chapman.

With strikeout numbers that high, the rest of the stats for 2015 aren't surprising: an ERA of 1.47, a FIP of 1.70, and a WHIP of .791 -- elite territory, if the word "elite" means anything at all.

His biggest area of needed improvement last year was to hone his fastball command, and to learn a decent offspeed/breaking pitch. Now and again he'd throw a short curveball/slider, but not often, and not usually close enough to the strike zone to induce a whiff. Then he'd go back to the high fastball and strike out another batter chasing a pitch out of the zone, and that would be that.

Since then, he's graduated to Advanced A Lakeland, Double A Erie, and just recently, Triple A Toledo -- all in the space of five months. He pitched 26 1/3 innings between Lakeland and Erie before finally giving up his first run of the year, on June 25.

Before arriving in Toledo on July 29, he'd dismantled Advanced A and Double A hitters to the tune of a 1.18 ERA, a 0.93 FIP, a 0.789 WHIP, and an elevated 14.7 K/9 -- which is just a very math-y way to say that he moved up the ladder and actually got better. He put up better numbers against higher competition.

I don't get to watch Joe Jimenez pitch in my back yard anymore, and that sucks, because he was electric and wonderful to watch. But I have watched the archived video footage of several of his outings this year, and two things stood out immediately: his fastball got better, and he's throwing that short curve/slider more often, except now it's easily a 60-grade pitch that occasionally flashes 70.

I mean ... 

It's disgusting. It's filthy. It's a 15 MPH differential off his fastball, and it makes batters look foolish. It's a legitimate swing-and-miss pitch that he's clearly gotten more comfortable throwing, and suddenly it's no wonder why his K/9 rate shot up in 2016. 

With two pitches sitting above (or well above) average, and having already been groomed for the closer position (he struck out the final batter to clinch the Midwest League Championship in 2015, so he's seen big game pressure), it's only a matter of time before he's closing games in Detroit.

Comparisons have been drawn to Bruce Rondon -- negatively, unfortunately -- but the similarities stop at "guy who throws super hard and seems a bit on the stocky side." Rondon posted a 13.7 K/9 in West Michigan back in the day, but that number fell to 9.6 in Double A, and only inched back up to 10.1 in Triple A.

Higher competition took some of the wind out of Rondon's sails, but for Jimenez, it seems to have only inspired him to work harder and make adjustments. If memory serves, Rondon was still relying primarily on his triple-digit fastball and still trying to learn a slider when he got to Detroit in 2013, and his command was less consistent than Jimenez has shown at the Advanced A and Double A levels.

Yes, this is a lot of hype over a reliever. Yes, bullpen arms are volatile and maddeningly unpredictable. But this is about as close as it gets to a "sure thing," so I'm excited to see what Jimenez brings to the table when he inevitably puts on a Tigers uniform this year.
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