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Looking back on the Joe Jimenez trade

The Joe Jimenez trade looks pretty similar now to how it did a year ago, but there are a few factors that could change that.

Chicago Cubs v Atlanta Braves Photo by Matthew Grimes Jr./Atlanta Braves/Getty Images

Last offseason, the Braves traded Justyn-Henry Malloy and Jake Higginbotham to the Tigers for cash considerations and right-handed reliever Joe Jimenez, who had one year left in arbitration before free agency. Given that most of Jimenez’ service for the Braves is now accounted for, let’s see how that trade looks now, with the benefit of hindsight. Note that we’re ignoring the cash considerations portion here because we don’t know the amount, but it also isn’t likely to make a huge difference.

Let’s start with the prospects the Braves sent away. All in all, they each look like pretty much the same prospect that they were a year ago. Higginbotham, if you can really consider him a prospect, is a 27-year-old pitcher who is... fine in the upper minors. He strikes out around 8 batters per 9 innings and has an average-ish walk rate. His FIP in Double-A was about the same for Detroit as it was in 2022 for Atlanta’s Double-A team, but his ground ball rate took a big dip and his xFIP spiked in response. The Braves shouldn’t lose any sleep over Higginbotham.

Justyn-Henry Malloy (23 years and 7 months old) was the headliner prospect in the deal and he could be something at the major league level, but he hasn’t shown much of anything for Detroit than he did for Atlanta before they traded him. His offensive stat line in Triple-A for Detroit is almost identical to his line in Double-A for Atlanta, but with an ISO spike this year. Given that his wRC+ is pretty much the same in both years (125 in Double-A for the Braves, 130 in Triple-A for the Tigers), I am guessing that the ISO spike is boosted at least a good bit by the comparative offensive environments, as opposed to much of a change in Malloy’s profile. Malloy might have the talent to be a real bat in MLB, but the concern with his profile remains on defense, where he doesn’t have a clear home. Is he destined to be a designated hitter? If so, his value definitely takes a hit. While I haven’t watched Malloy’s defense, I haven’t seen any reporting to indicate that anything has changed with his defensive profile since the trade. Malloy might be a major league player, but doesn’t seem to be likely to be an impact player at the major league level unless he hits his upper band of offensive outcomes.

Joe Jimenez was obviously the biggest piece in the trade, coming off of a monster 1.4 fWAR season with a 2.00 FIP in 2022, with a much more pedestrian 3.49 ERA. His ERA improved to 3.07 in 2023 over 55.2 innings, but his FIP jumped to 3.60, closer to his xERA (3.69) and xFIP (3.61). These aren’t massively different numbers, but depending on how you value pitcher production (I still prefer FIP, but many prefer ERA), there is some wiggle room for evaluating his year in Atlanta. According to fWAR (which uses FIP), he was worth 0.5 WAR, but his RA-9-based WAR is 0.8, which is better but not actually all that different. Both of those figures are probably a little less than what the Braves were hoping for and expecting from him when they made the deal, but right in line with his preseason ZiPS projection of 0.5 WAR. I’m sure that nobody in the Front Office is stunned at how his season went. There is some additional value to be had from having Jimenez for a playoff run as well, but how he does in the playoffs will probably mean more for the vibes of the trade as Braves fans than the actual retrospective valuation.

With all that said, one thing that’s worth considering is that the Braves never really got around to using Jimenez like a guy they specifically targeted and traded for. Even though Raisel Iglesias started the season on the shelf and Jimenez didn’t allow a run in his first four appearances, he was used in just eight April games, and only three of those involved usage in medium leverage. To be clear: the Braves traded for a reliever, had their closer out of commission until May 6, yet still didn’t use that newly-traded-for reliever in a single high leverage outing in April.

Or in May. In fact, it took until June 12 for Jimenez to see a single high-leverage outing, when he was back in his old stomping grounds of Comerica Park. In the Braves’ defense, his stats to that point were pretty pedestrian: an 86 ERA-, 97 FIP-, and 93 xFIP- don’t scream “high leverage reliever.” But, it’s still strange to see the team acquire a guy and then let him faff around in medium-to-low leverage; there are freely-available relievers for that.

For about a two-month period between June 12 and August 10, Jimenez actually pitched in relatively meaningful situations: 21 appearances, of which five were high leverage and seven were medium leverage. (If that doesn’t seem like a lot, again, remember that before this point, he only had five medium leverage appearances and the remaining 17 were low leverage.) Jimenez lived up to the billing here: 29 ERA-, 38 FIP-, 80 xFIP-... but somehow the fatal hands of fortune decided to strike him and give him just a 7/5 shutdown/meltdown ratio, and just 0.20 WPA in that span.

And then, seemingly out of nowhere, the Braves took away those high leverage opportunities. Jimenez wouldn’t get another one until the final, meaningless game of the year, a game in which the Braves asked Michael Tonkin to hold down a one-run lead in the ninth. Just to be clear, in his final 17 appearances, Jimenez had just five appearances in medium leverage or higher.

So, the Braves weren’t that interested in using him in high leverage. They also weren’t that interested in using him at all. Early in the year, he had a three-day gap, a four-day gap, and a six-day gap between outings. In total, he pitched on five days’ rest or more six times throughout the year. By comparison, Kirby Yates, who spent the year pitching way worse than Jimenez, only had seven such gaps.

In the end, it’s hard to get around the fact that Jimenez finished 11th among Braves relievers in average leverage coming into a game. His 0.80 average leverage when entering is decidedly low leverage, ahead of only fill-in relief options like Ben Heller and Danny Young. Yates finished with a higher average leverage than Jimenez. So did designated long guy Michael Tonkin, to say nothing of Collin McHugh, whose mark is fifth on the team. Jimenez was the only guy on the roster the whole year to be used with so little conviction that his average leverage didn’t hit “medium leverage” territory. He didn’t pitch poorly at all, but aside from a two-month stretch in the summer, his performance didn’t seem to influence his usage.

Essentially, all of the pieces of the trade still look like more or less what we thought they were a year later. This trade at best will now turn out as a marginal win for Atlanta, scooping up a little bit of surplus value on Jimenez for prospects who may not be worth anything at the major league level. There was an absolute upside case for Atlanta in which Jimenez repeated his stellar 2022 season for Atlanta, received the qualifying offer, and signed elsewhere, netting the Braves some draft value on top of his highly productive season. This scenario failed to unfold, but there was a point in late July/mid-August where it was within the realm of possibility. Our own Sam Peebles actually wrote about Jimenez around this time and said “The Braves made the right move in trading for him”, but a sub-par August and a worse September, both problematic only because of HR/FB stuff, undermined Jimenez’ earlier success. There is still a live downside case for Atlanta, however, where Malloy turns into a quality DH and makes this trade look pretty bad, especially considering Jimenez’ non-interesting usage.

Whatever Jimenez does in the playoffs could play a big part in how we view this trade as fans, as well as how Malloy’s career develops. From a pure analysis perspective, I feel about the same way now as I did when I first saw the trade: I understand why Atlanta did it and Jimenez probably gave them roughly what they expected if not slightly less, but I am not really a fan of the value proposition from a process perspective (unless the cash was a significant sum). I’m sure the Braves expected a bit more from Jimenez this season and hoped for significantly more, but they also didn’t really seem interested in giving Jimenez the chances to leverage his pitching into game outcomes more effectively. In the end, I don’t think the Braves are likely to feel substantially differently about the trade now than they did when they made it, since all of the pieces have stayed so close to their median outcome.

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