For Orioles right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez, 2015 is shaping up to be a season of redemption.
One year ago, Jimenez was a target of vitriol from Orioles fans after a disappointing debut season with the Birds. Signed to a four-year, $50 million contract Feb. 19, 2014 -- the largest contract the O's had ever given a free-agent pitcher -- Jimenez struggled from day one. His control abandoned him, as he issued the second-most walks in the American League (77) despite ranking 62nd in innings pitched (125.1). His walk rate of 5.5 per nine innings was the highest of his career.
Things got so bleak for Jimenez that he was banished to the bullpen in August, making five appearances (three in relief) during the Orioles' final 41 games of the season. Even as the Birds erupted for their most successful season in 17 years and cruised to the American League East crown, Jimenez was reduced to a bystander. He didn't pitch during the Orioles' American League Division Series sweep of the Detroit Tigers, and then he was left off the postseason roster during the American League Championship Series.
It wasn't the way Jimenez had envisioned starting his Orioles career. On fan forums, he was dubbed a free-agent dud, an expensive mistake and a potential albatross on the Orioles' payroll through 2017. Some fans wanted him traded for a bag of baseballs if another team would pick up some of his salary.
Heading into 2015 spring training camp at Sarasota, Fla., even the Orioles weren't entirely sure what Jimenez's role on the team would be. With five other incumbent starting pitchers returning to the club, Jimenez would have to fight to earn a spot in the rotation, or else find himself serving as an expensive mop-up reliever.
Jimenez, 31, arrived at camp ready to do whatever was needed to put his miserable 2014 season behind him. His top priority was working with pitching coach Dave Wallace and bullpen coach Dom Chiti to adjust his mechanics, which had become overly complicated during his first year with the Birds.
A new face was on hand to help with the process. On March 4, the Orioles hired former major league pitcher Ramon Martinez as special assignment pitching instructor. Martinez -- the older brother of newly minted Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez -- enjoyed a 14-year career in the big leagues, winning 135 games and posting a 3.67 career ERA. While a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers from 1995-97, his pitching coach was Wallace.
Jimenez clicked right away with his countryman Martinez.
"He's been great," Jimenez said. "He's from the Dominican Republic. I saw him pitch a lot. He's a smart guy. He knows how to be a good teacher. He learned from Dave, so they have a good chemistry. If you don't learn with them, you're not going to learn with anybody else."
Martinez worked with Jimenez on making his mechanics more fluid and pounding the strike zone. Jimenez's improvement throughout the course of spring training was evident. After walking five batters in four innings during his first two starts in Grapefruit League play, Jimenez issued a total of three free passes during his final five outings, spanning 23 innings.
With Martinez's help, Jimenez looked like a new pitcher.
"Ramon Martinez being around has really helped him," Wallace said. "[He's] attacking and staying on the aggressive side and using his fastball, both four-seam and two-seam, and [knowing] when to throw it and have confidence in it."
Some O's fans -- still soured by Jimenez's 2014 season -- were skeptical he would be able to sustain his success once he stopped facing spring training lineups filled with minor leaguers and non-roster journeymen. But when the regular season began, Jimenez carried over his Sarasota success into Baltimore, pitching seven scoreless, one-hit innings against the Toronto Blue Jays during his first start April 11. He struck out eight.
Jimenez didn't stop there. He went 2-1 with a 1.59 ERA during four starts in April, jumping out to a significantly better start than in 2014, when he was 0-4 with a 6.59 ERA during the season's first month.
By the end of his 10th start of 2015, Jimenez had a 3.12 ERA with 55 strikeouts and 16 walks in 57.2 innings. He worked seven innings during five of those starts. At the same point in 2014, his ERA was nearly two runs higher (4.98), and he walked 28 batters in 56 innings and had gone seven innings or more twice. In fact, Jimenez already has more seven-inning starts in 2015 than he had during the entire 2014 season (three).
Catcher Caleb Joseph -- who caught each of Jimenez's first 10 starts this season -- has noticed a night and day difference from the hurler who struggled at the beginning of 2014.
"He's got a lot of confidence," Joseph said. "He made an adjustment probably about a little over halfway into last season with his hands. He kind of dropped his hands and doesn't go over his head anymore. So, I think that's helping him to be a little bit more consistent with his mechanics. [He's] throwing his fastball for strikes, especially to both sides of the plate."
Jimenez is no longer a pitcher who can simply blow the ball past hitters. During his early years with the Colorado Rockies from 2007-10, Jimenez averaged more than 95 mph on his fastball. That mark has dipped to about 90 mph since Jimenez joined the Orioles.
Still, he's finding other ways to get hitters out, relying more on movement than velocity.
"[He's] predominantly a sinkerball pitcher now," Joseph said. "Getting ahead [is] really important, [throwing] strike one, forcing a lot of weak contact. … With the sinker, it's going to move a lot more than your traditional four-seam. So, anytime I can tell him how it's moving -- hey, it's moving more, or it's moving less today -- we can adjust where we start it."
Joseph's steady presence behind the plate has been beneficial for Jimenez as well.
"He's a great guy," Jimenez said. "He's smart back there. He has a good target. He has soft hands. We have a good chemistry. If I don't like a pitch, he knows what's the next pitch that I'm going to throw."
Ultimately, Jimenez's prolonged success will likely depend on his ability to maintain his mechanics. His herky-jerky pitching motion of 2014 has been simplified and streamlined, but Jimenez knows he needs to keep his concentration to avoid falling back into bad habits.
"Every time I get on the mound, I'm thinking about mechanics," Jimenez said. "[I'm] trying to break my arms a little bit quicker, staying back, staying tall."
So far in 2015, the adjustments have worked. If his hot start is a sign of things to come, Jimenez could live up to the value of his hefty contract, and put his disappointing 2014 further behind him.
"It's been nice," Jimenez said. "Every time you go into a new team and you don't do what everybody's expecting you to do, it doesn't feel good. Last year, I was disappointed. But that's the great thing about baseball. Every day is a new day. Every year is a new year.
"You have to forget about what happened yesterday and keep going. And that's what I've been doing."