CLEVELAND -- It might be one of the game's most imposing pitches when it's right -- a 99-mph blazing heater with heavy sinking action.
Even when it's not quite up to par, it's usually enough to stymie an opposing hitter. At least, that's what the Indians believe.
Ubaldo Jimenez isn't so sure.
It's not the dip in Jimenez's faseball's velocity or less-formidable stuff that's ailing him. The lack of confidence in the centerpiece of his repertoire seems to be the crux of his recent troubles on the mound.
"You have to pitch off your fastball," said Indians pitching coach Tim Belcher, "especially when you throw as hard as he does."
Through four starts with Cleveland, the right-hander is 1-1 with a 7.29 ERA. In three road outings, he surrendered 17 earned runs in 13 innings (11.77 ERA). More importantly, the Indians lost all three of those games, despite an outpouring of run support. Jimenez's next start -- and opportunity to turn things around -- comes at home on Friday night vs. the Royals.
"He's staying positive," manager Manny Acta said. "Obviously, he's not happy with the results."
The Indians' investment in Jimenez as the anchor of their staff for the next two-plus years was no under-the-table exchange. It's well-documented the hefty price general manager Chris Antonetti paid to acquire the pitcher who opened the 2010 season with a 13-1 record and a 1.15 ERA -- namely, the organization's No. 1 picks from 2009 and '10, Drew Pomeranz and Alex White, respectively.
Pomeranz tossed seven scoreless innings -- retiring the first 19 batters he faced -- in his only start with Double-A Tulsa before undergoing an emergency appendectomy Saturday, ending his season prematurely. In his Rockies debut Tuesday, White yielded five runs in six innings.
Being so green, there's no telling what Pomeranz and White -- both 22 -- will accomplish in Colorado. What the Indians didn't expect, however, was having a similar uncertainty about their return in the deal.
Jimenez battled through groin and thumb injuries throughout the early part of the season with the Rockies, but he quelled all fears of lingering pain when he passed a physical on July 31 to cement the trade. That also hushed talk that injuries caused Jimenez's drop in velocity.
In 2010, when Jimenez finished third in the National League Cy Young Award voting, his average fastball clocked 96.1 mph, according to fangraphs.com. This season, that speed has slowed to 93.4 mph, though that still ranks 10th fastest in the Major Leagues.
Antonetti shrugged off the reduction in velocity, attributing it to Jimenez enduring a cyclical rough patch. The Indians adamantly contend that the pitcher is healthy.
"There's been a lot of examples of guys who have had fluctuations in their velocity," Antonetti said. "If you look at Justin Verlander, he had a significant drop in his velocity from 2007 to 2008. He regained it from 2008 to 2009 and hasn't looked back since. That's just one of a litany of examples of guys.
"Pitching at the Major League level for a sustained period of time is exceptionally difficult. Inevitably, there are going to be times when you have better stuff than others. We're confident that Ubaldo is healthy and he'll have the ability to regain that."
Are there other factors hampering Jimenez, or is it just his suffering fastball that's keeping him from replicating his 2010 success?
The lanky right-hander said changing leagues has been a challenge, but can't serve as the scapegoat for his faults.
"You don't know the league or the hitters," he said. "But if you execute your pitches when you go out there, it doesn't matter who you're facing. You're going to get hitters out."
Being traded took its toll on Jimenez, who spent a decade in the Rockies organization.
"I had been through a lot with that team," he said. "It's really challenging when you get traded, but that's part of the game. There's nothing you can do about it, and once you're traded, you have to move on. You have to be happy wherever you are."
It also was awkward for those watching the trade play out on July 30, when the developments of the deal unfolded slowly and painfully.
Pomeranz and White were pulled from their game with Double-A Akron about two hours before Jimenez trotted out to the mound for his scheduled start against the Padres. Knowing he was likely on the move, Jimenez scuffled through a 45-pitch inning, and admitted afterwards that he had trouble focusing on the task at hand.
Jimenez said joining a team in postseason contention provided him a sense of relief, eliminating the impact of the trade on his psyche from the chamber of excuses for his poor pitching.
"If you're going to get traded," Jimenez said, "in a perfect world, you get traded to a team that's playing really well, because every game means a lot. You're not going to come to the ballpark and just play for nothing. Everything counts."
But to remain in contention, the Indians need a peaking Jimenez. Belcher thinks it starts with one pitch, no matter how hard he's throwing it.
"Everybody's made so much about his velocity being down, but [his fastball] is still 94 mph," Belcher said. "Everybody should be so lucky to have their velocity down and it still be 94 mph. He pitched all of 2010 with an average fastball of 96 mph.
"So all of a sudden when you're out there and your average fastball is 92-94 mph, there's probably times when he probably does feel like his fastball might be a little short and insignificant."
|"Pitching at the Major League level for a sustained period of time is exceptionally difficult. Inevitably, there are going to be times when you have better stuff than others. We're confident that Ubaldo is healthy and he'll have the ability to regain that."|
|-- Indians general manager Chris Antonetti|
"It's a challenge to get him to continue to commit to the fastball and pound the zone with it." Belcher said. "But it's still good enough."
That wasn't the case in his most recent start -- a 3 1/3-inning effort Sunday in Detroit, where he allowed eight runs and nine hits. Jimenez's fastball averaged 93 mph, and he bailed on it pretty quickly, throwing it on just 22.9 percent of his pitches.
Only once did a Tigers hitter swing and miss at a Jimenez heater, continuing a frightening downward trend. In 2008, Jimenez's swinging strike percentage was 9.6 percent. That number dipped to 9.1 percent last season and has plummeted to 7.7 percent this year.
Jimenez demonstrated confidence in the pitch during his lone start at home on Aug. 10, when he allowed three unearned runs in eight innings of a 10-3 win against Detroit.
"I had really good command of my fastball," Jimenez said. "Then after that, I was able to throw my breaking ball for strikes."
That's the sequence Belcher would like to see more of -- using the fastball to set up Jimenez's changeup, splitter and curve.
The Indians have two more years for their pricy trade to pay off. But they don't want to have to wait to reap the benefits of making a splash at the non-waiver Trade Deadline. The addition of Jimenez was supposed to relieve some of the pain the franchise's fans still felt after parting ways with CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee and Victor Martinez in recent summers.
So far, it's added nothing but salt to the wound.
"We made sure we let him know when he came over here that he wasn't here to save this team," Acta said.
Jimenez won't identify himself as a savior of sorts, but holds a high enough standard for himself that his performance thus far in Cleveland can't be classified as anything other than a disappointment.
"I still put pressure on myself, because I want to be good," he said. "I want to try to help the team."
For Jimenez to re-establish the makeup that made him one of the NL's most feared hurlers, Belcher said, he'll need to trust his stuff. A fastball with less zip might not scare off as many hitters, but Belcher continues to preach that it can still do the trick.
"When guys feel like their fastball is not what it should be, they might tend to go to their offspeed stuff a bit more," Belcher said. "We're trying to make him aware of that, make sure he guards against that and continues to use his fastball."
The Indians don't have time to give Jimenez's mechanics an extreme makeover. Three mph aren't going to magically reappear on his fastball. With a month left in the regular season and the Indians clinging to dimming playoff hopes, they need Jimenez to fight through any mechanical flaws or mental hurdles.
"The here and now is we need him ready to pitch every fifth day now to win," Belcher said. "That's why the changes have to be small and very incremental, so that we don't go backwards.
"I'd rather take a small step forward in search of a small step forward than take a large step backward in search of a large step forward."
Zack Meisel is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.