Feature Photo: Joe Jimenez, RHP, Tigers
(Photo by Emily Waldon)
Working the closing inning one pitch at a time, he rarely shows emotion, until, that is, the final strike in thrown. Pointing toward the sky, followed by an enthusiastic pound into his glove, the right-hander knows he did his job. For Jimenez, he’s simply approaching the game as he’s always been instructed. “Just throw strikes.”
Jimenez, a fresh-faced, 21-year-old, received those three simple words of advice from his father, Jose – three words that could very well end up helping resolve an ongoing bullpen drought for the Tigers sooner than you may think.
The concrete right-hander has yet to allow a run over 25.1 innings this season – 17.1 at High A Lakeland and eight innings at his current assignment in Double-A Erie for the SeaWolves.
“If the Tigers want to step on the accelerator with him,” said Baseball America’s Ben Badler, “he could fly through the system this year, possibly even helping the major league club by the end of the season.”
The youngest of four sons growing up in the rural town of Bayamon, Puerto Rico, Jimenez didn’t begin pitching until he was 13, right around the same time older brother A.J. Jimenez was selected by the Toronto Blue Jays as a minor league catcher.
“We throw everywhere; you know? In front of the house, anywhere, wherever,” Jimenez recalled. “We have a stadium near to our home, so we go there when we have time.”
With the genes of his father, Jose, a pitcher in the Puerto Rican baseball league, Jimenez already was throwing hard to his older brother at 13, reaching comfortably into the low 90s.
“I worked hard for it with my brother in Puerto Rico,” Jimenez said. “He would tell me, ‘You know, that velo is gonna come, so just keep training and just keep throwing and it will come.” As predicted, the velocity arrived right on time, and the Tigers took notice, signing 18-year-old Jimenez in 2013. He’s been something else ever since.
His debut assignment was in the Gulf Coast League (Rookie League), and Jimenez rolled to 3-0 with 24 strikeouts over 18 innings, with an ERA of 0.50. The role of the stocky teenager had begun to take shape, and even scarier, he wouldn’t hit his peak until roughly a year later.
“Two years ago, I got my velocity from 92-to-93 mph up to about 98 or something like that,” Jimenez said. “So, just two years ago, I started throwing that hard.”
When asked if the sudden jump in velocity surprised him, he laughed. “Yeah, it kind of did,” he said. By the time he received assignment to Class A West Michigan in 2015, Jimenez was boasting a fastball known to routinely flirt with triple digits. Over 43 innings with the Whitecaps, Jimenez was 5-1 with 17 saves, a 0.79 WHIP, 1.67 ERA and 61 strikeouts – against just 23 hits and 11 walks. That earned him a ticket back to Florida this spring, this time assigned to the High A Lakeland Flying Tigers of the Florida State League.
Graduation to the Florida State League can have many up-and-comers struggling to adapt, but Jimenez applied advice received from West Michigan Pitching Coach Mark Johnson.
“If you watch me pitching, I’ll always take a deep breath before every pitch and that’s working for me,” Jimenez said. “Last year, I did that, too, because Mark Johnson, he tell me to do that. He say it’s going to help me a lot, so I do it every pitch. “Just take a big breath and continue pitching.”
With Lakeland in 2016, Jimenez once again was brilliant, securing all 10 of his save opportunities, striking out 28 and allowing just five hits to one walk in 17.1 innings.
At the conclusion of another scoreless outing — Jimenez hasn’t allowed a run since Aug. 20, 2015 — Lakeland manager Dave Huppert decided to have a little fun.
“After the game, they call me to the office and Dave Huppert tell me, ‘You have problems,’” Jimenez said. “I say, ‘Why? I’m not doing anything bad.’ He said, ‘No, you’re good. You’re going to Double-A tomorrow, so pack your things and good luck.’” I was so excited, you know?”
Since his perfect single-inning debut with the Erie SeaWolves on May 29, it’s been business as usual for sizzling right-hander. In eight games and eight innings, he’s struck out 16 and walked a single batter, and surrendered just four hits.
“Here, I’m throwing more changeups,” Jimenez said. “The pitching coach (Willie Blair) and the pitchers, they tell me in this league, you have to have more than two pitches (he has relied primarily on his fastball/slider combination to-date), so I’m throwing more of the changeup and, I mean, it’s pretty good.”
Jimenez is part of a Tigers’ farm system that may not be flooded with blue-chip talent, but has a lot more than it’s had in quite some time. Michael Fulmer made just three starts for Triple-A Toledo before being called up to the Tigers, and is off to a dominating start in the majors (7-2, 2.43 overall; 5-1, 1.22 in his last seven starts). Outfielder Christin Stewart (High A Lakeland) and SS JaCoby Jones (Triple-A Toledo) are putting on shows in the minor leagues, and so is last year’s first-round draft pick, right-hander Beau Burrows (Class A West Michigan). Jimenez, though, could be the next one to break through to the majors.
“Jimenez throws his fastball in the mid-to-upper 90s, with a combination of velocity, late life and deception that leads to a lot of empty swings from hitters,” said Badler. “Obviously he’s shown this year and ever since he signed that he has the stuff to miss bats at a high rate, but he’s also able to repeat his delivery and pound the zone with strikes.”
Here is some recent video of Jimenez from May 2, 2016, with Jimenez was throwing for High A Lakeland – his fastball sat 95-to-97 mph (T98) and slider was thrown in the 80-to-82 mph range. We also have video from an appearance May 15, 2016. (Both clips courtesy of 2080 contributor James Chipman).
Over his four minor league seasons, Jimenez is 14-3 with 35 saves and a 1.27 ERA in 113 innings. He’s struck out 170 while walking just 29 and allowing just 63 hits. His WHIP is 0.81, and that number has been over 1.00 at just one stop, Short-Season A Connecticut, and that was barely, at 1.050.
He credits it all to that advice his father gave him, over and over, back in Puerto Rico.
“Just getting ahead in the counts and just throwing strikes, because that’s everything, you know?” Jimenez said. “In every league, if you throw balls, you’re going to get hit. So, I’m just throwing strikes.”
And the results — and rapid ascension — are mighty impressive.