One of the strengths of the 2023 Braves was the quality and depth of their bullpen. Perhaps the best example of this? Joe Jimenez throwing 56 innings in 2023, posting a 68 ERA-/83 FIP-/82 xFIP-, and only having five of those innings come in high leverage situations. Jimenez spent the year living in what continually felt like the sixth and seventh inning, and kept a rather low profile as a result. Make no mistake though, he gave Atlanta everything they hoped for when they traded for him last winter, and they'll be looking for more of the same in 2024... maybe even in higher leverage.
Prior to his Braves tenure, Jimenez spent his entire career in the Detroit Tigers organization, and every bit of it as a reliever. He made his debut in 2017 and slowly worked his way through his team control years pitching in the Detroit Tigers bullpen. At the end of the 2022 season, Jimenez found himself just a season away from free agency, and the Tigers took that opportunity to move him for more of long-term piece.
The Braves, on December 7, 2022, bolstered their bullpen by trading LF/DH Justyn-Henry Malloy and LHP Jake Higginbotham to Detroit for Jimenez and his one year of service time remaining.
What were the expectations?
Through no fault of his own, Jimenez came to Atlanta with an immediate strike against him, at least from a part of the fanbase. Malloy had quickly moved through Atlanta’s minor league system as one of their better bats, and fans were surprised and partly annoyed that the team would trade him away for one year of a middle reliever. Adding to the frustration was the inconsistent nature of Jimenez’ profile. He was coming off a great year in Detroit in 2022 with a 90/50/68 line (ERA-/FIP-/xFIP-), but his 2021 season had been a disaster at 137/123/134. Go back a year further to the shortened 2020 season, and the numbers were even worse results-wise, at 164/154/116.
So, it was hard to project what Jimenez was going to do for Atlanta with any confidence and because the high leverage roles had largely (and apparently!) been spoken for, even his role on the team was a bit of a mystery. Broadly, he was projected as something between a low-end and average-y middle reliever, but that’s a category into which most relievers fall into anyway.
On the whole, it’s really tough to be disappointed with what Jimenez gave Atlanta in 2023. His final numbers were 56 innings pitched, a 3.04 ERA, a 3.59 FIP, and a 3.60 xFIP (68/83/82) while being healthy and available pretty much all year. He’s always been fly ball-oriented pitcher, which is always a worry because of the potential for HR/FB variation to cause a horrid season, and that didn’t change in 2023, with him posting the lowest ground-ball rate of his career at just 27 percent. But, fortunately, a 12.7 percent HR/FB rate meant he wasn’t punished with abnormal home run per fly ball luck, meaning he really didn’t pay for all those fly balls anymore than would be expected given his batted ball profile.
One of the principal reasons Atlanta acquired Jimenez is their fondness for great strikeout-to-walk rates, and Jimenez didn’t disappoint there either. With 73 strikeouts to just 14 walks over his 56 innings, Jimenez posted the seventh-best K/BB ratio (5.21) in all of baseball among qualified relievers. That’s a trait that no doubt contributed to the Braves signing him back as a free agent this winter.
Overall, he tallied 0.5 fWAR in 2023. That isn’t a particularly impressive number, but it largely speaks to the fact that he wasn’t really used in particularly high leverage, since fWAR is leverage-weighted.
What went right?
For the most part, Jimenez leaned on his four-seam fastball, throwing it 63 percent of the time to set up hitters, and used his slider to put them away with a 45 percent whiff rate. It looked like this a lot of the time:
As is the case with most right-hand relievers who use a slider to put hitters away, Jimenez had more success against right-handed batters vs left-handed batters, posting a 2.99 FIP vs right-handed batters and a 4.49 FIP when he lacked the platoon advantage. Right-handed hitters posted just a .229/.289/.405 slash line against him last year and he only gave up 4 homers in 144 right-handed batters faced. (The xFIP split wasn’t as dramatic, but was still about 1.00.)
Jimenez also provided Atlanta tremendous consistency throughout the season, posting a 2.98 ERA and a 3.58 FIP in the first half and a 3.16 ERA and a 3.60 FIP in the second half. He had one rough patch runs-wise from May 1-16 allowing six earned runs in five innings over that stretch but other than that, Jimenez provided the Braves with basically 6 months of consistent relief work.
Jimenez’ best outing of the year was one where he returned to his old stomping grounds. It came amidst that short stretch where he was getting some semblance of higher-leverage outings, and it involved him throwing 1 2⁄3 innings in a one-run game. Jimenez got some of his former mates in 1-2-3 fashion in the eighth, and then got the first two outs of the ninth, including a strikeout of Miguel Cabrera, before giving way to A.J. Minter for the one-out save. (And yes, this clip was another instance of getting ahead with two in-zone fastballs and finishing the batter off with an out-of-zone slider.)
What went wrong?
Because Jimenez tried to set up as many hitters as possible with his fastball, there were times hitters would sit on it early, and make him pay if he left it over the middle:
As you can see, all three of those homers came on four-seam fastballs over the heart of the plate in 0-0 counts. Some of it is location of course: don't throw a fastball right down the middle to Mookie Betts... but some it was also a predictable tendency. Hitters knew Jimenez wanted to get ahead in the count with his fastball.
The other weird part of Jimenez’s season was his usage. Again, this is not his fault, but you can argue the Braves didn’t get the max value out of Jimenez’s strong season because basically they refused to use him in high leverage situations, pretty much ever. In the 56 innings Jimenez threw in 2023, 35 of them came in low leverage situations and another 16 game in medium leverage. That means only five of the 56 innings Jimenez threw last year came in high leverage spots. The Braves had enough good relievers where the banishment of Jimenez to low leverage didn’t impact the overall performance of the team (104 wins works just fine), but it is interesting dilemma for the club moving forward, because there’s just no reason to avoid using him in higher leverage the way they did in 2023. As Daniel wrote a few months ago:
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.
In a funny twist of fate, despite the good numbers, Jimenez actually finished the season with negative WPA. and had more meltdowns (ten) than shutdowns (nine). This was largely an artifact of the Braves not using him in situations where he could collect shutdowns, but it was still pretty unfortunate. His worst-outing WPA-wise came on May 26, in Philadelphia, where he relieved Jared Shuster with the tying run on first and two out, and then proceeded to issue two walks and a go-ahead single to Brandon Marsh in a game the Braves ended up losing. That sort of thing, especially when the hit in question wasn’t particularly scalded, seemed to happen to him from time to time in higher leverage, even in the middle innings, and it may partly explain why the Braves never gave him more of a shot in higher leverage, even though that wouldn’t be a great reason to do so.
True to form, Jimenez only managed to get into one postseason game... throwing the sixth inning (of course) in the Braves’ only playoff win of 2023.
Jimenez was supposed to enter the free agent market five days after the conclusion of the World Series, but the Braves preempted that by signing him to a three-year, $30 million contract right before free agency opened. The Braves love relievers who strike people out and don’t walk people, so it’s not a surprise they locked him up as quickly as they could to avoid an open-market bidding war. Now, the question will once again become about usage. The Braves already have Raisel Iglesias and A.J. Minter for high leverage spots, plus they brought Pierce Johnson back and added Aaron Bummer and Reynaldo Lopez to the mix. Steamer sees Jimenez as high 3 ERA and FIP pitcher next year, essentially an average-y reliever, right in line with his career, so usage will undoubtedly be decided by 2024 performance.