Is this Tigers reliever on the trade block?

July 25th, 2022

This story was excerpted from Jason Beck’s Tigers Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

The Tigers haven’t had a bevy of trade discussions yet, general manager Al Avila suggested over the weekend. That should change soon.

“I would say in the last few weeks, a few phone calls here and there. Nothing hot and heavy,” Avila said Saturday. “But I would expect it maybe to pick up as we get closer to Aug. 2.”

The Tigers are expecting a run at their relievers. It’s not just the clear strength of their roster in this difficult season, it’s also the area where they have a blend of hard throwers and spinners, veterans and youngsters, soon-to-be free agents and players with additional years of club control.

And somewhere in between the close watch on All-Star closer Gregory Soto and veterans Andrew Chafin and Michael Fulmer, don’t be surprised if Joe Jiménez is the reliever some teams try to get.

It’s quite a statement considering that, a year ago, there was some question whether the Tigers would tender the arbitration-eligible Jiménez a contract. But amid Jiménez’s struggles last season were metrics that didn’t match his results. After an offseason of work to understand the metrics and translate it into his pitching -- including tweaks to his delivery to become more consistent -- he has not only backed up the metrics, he has built on them.

Even given the mercurial nature of reliever stats, Jiménez’s traditional numbers in 52 appearances for the Tigers last year weren’t pretty, from a 5.96 ERA to a 1.52 WHIP. He allowed more walks (35) than hits (34) over 45 1/3 innings, but struck out 57. Opponents batted just .206 against Jiménez, but his .367 on-base percentage led to a .755 OPS. His pitches, launch angle and exit velocity led to a .168 expected batting average, putting him among the top Major League pitchers. Jiménez's expected slugging percentage ranked just outside the top 10 percent of big league hurlers, while his hard-hit rate ranked in the top 13 percent.

One set of Jiménez's numbers clearly wasn’t telling the story. A year later, it looks like the metrics were right. Here are his percentile rankings among MLB pitchers from last year to this season:

Hard-hit rate: 87th percentile in 2021, 77th percentile in '22
Whiff rate: 81st percentile in 2021, 81st percentile in '22
Strikeout rate: 73rd percentile in 2021, 96th percentile in '22
Walk rate: 1st percentile in 2021, 81st percentile in '22
Fastball velocity: 74th percentile in 2021, 81st percentile in '22
Fastball spin rate: 94th percentile in 2021, 93rd percentile in '22
Average exit velocity: 38th percentile in 2021, 71st percentile in '22
Expected batting average: 99th percentile in 2021, 83rd percentile in '22
Expecting slugging percentage: 89th percentile in 2021, 75th percentile in '22
Expected on-base percentage: 22nd percentile in 2021, 96th percentile in '22
Expected weighted on-base average: 58th percentile in 2021, 91st percentile in '22
Expected ERA: 58th percentile in 2021, 91st percentile in '22

The metrics, both realized and expected, translate into a tangible improvement: By working on making his delivery more consistent, Jiménez improved his command, dropped his walks and improved his chances for strikeouts. He has also regained a mile per hour on his average fastball velocity with just a minor sacrifice in spin rate (2,446 rpm this year, compared with 2,494 last season).

“I think when you have a guy who doesn't walk a lot of people, you try to swing because he's trying to throw strikes,” Jiménez said a couple weeks ago. “That's what happened overall. They're swinging at pitches that aren't in the zone. So maybe that's why I'm not walking.”

Jiménez has been consistent, not just from one pitch to another, or one outing to another, but one situation to the next. He has pitched in every inning from the fifth to the ninth, including his first save of the season in the second game of the Tigers’ July 4 doubleheader sweep of the Guardians.

“He's worked his tail off, pitched exactly how he has -- non-leverage, high-leverage,” manager A.J. Hinch said. “Pretty awesome.”  

Jiménez downplayed the situational work after his save.

“To be honest, I'm not paying attention too much to that,” he said. “I'm just trying to repeat my delivery every time that I go out there and obviously stay in control. It doesn't matter the situation.”

As the Trade Deadline nears, data and metrics make a difference. It’s how the Tigers were able to acquire prospect Reese Olson -- their No. 15 prospect -- from the Brewers at last year’s Trade Deadline for lefty reliever Daniel Norris, whose performance had pushed him out of tight situations but whose metrics suggested he was capable of more. In the case of Jiménez, the metrics and the performance line up, even if teams don’t necessarily see the former All-Star as a setup man or closer.

With one more season of arbitration before free agency, the 27-year-old Jiménez also offers some future value beyond this stretch run without the big-ticket price a team might need to pay for Soto, who has three more seasons of team control and more work at closer. 

With the Trade Deadline looming, time will tell whether Jiménez ends up playing a role in another team’s playoff push, or moves back into a big role with the Tigers upon another reliever’s trade. Either way, he’s a reliever worth keeping an eye on.