DETROIT – Some of the Detroit Tigers' most talented young players are off to fast starts this season, and nobody has been better than relief pitcher Joe Jimenez.
As the No. 5 prospect in the organization last year, Jimenez was pegged as the future Tigers closer. His high-90s fastball and devastating slider was a mouth-watering combination for fans who have watched blown save after blown save in the last decade of Tigers baseball.
PITCHING REPORT: Can the Tigers' starting rotation actually be good this season?
But 2017 was a major wake-up call for Jimenez, who got rocked in 24 appearances as a rookie. He allowed 26 earned runs on 31 hits in just 19 innings. Jimenez allowed more than two base runners per inning and only struck out 17 batters.
This season got off to a bit of a rocky start as well. New manager Ron Gardenhire called upon Jimenez on Opening Day, and the 23-year-old allowed a walk, a catcher's interference, an infield single and a line out. He allowed two runs to score, including one inherited from closer Shane Greene.
Since Opening Day, nobody has made more relief appearances than Jimenez. He's logged 4.2 innings, allowing one hit, no walks and no runs.
In his three appearances following the opener, Jimenez retired all eight batters he faced without a strikeout. He got two ground balls and six fly balls, and didn't allow another line drive.
Those numbers are solid, but the last two appearances were more exciting.
Jimenez was downright dominant in his Saturday appearance in Chicago. He threw 19 pitches against the White Sox, allowing one hit and striking out two batters. Jimenez also recorded seven swinging strikes, which shows why the Tigers believe he can be a closer.
Preventing runs is ultimately a reliever's main job, but swinging strikes is an indicator of a pitcher's dominance, and can be more predictive of future results. Jimenez hasn't missed many bats this season, but with four strikeouts and seven swinging strikes in his last two innings, he's flashing his first signs of dominance.
Limiting hard contact
Jimenez has been able to survive without great strikeout numbers this year because he's keeping hitters off balance. Since Corey Dickerson's line out on Opening Day, Jimenez has faced 17 batters without allowing a hard-hit ball.
There have been 14 balls put in play against Jimenez this season. Only one registered as hard contact (Dickerson's line out), while eight were medium contact and five were soft contact.
As a result, batters are just 2 for 18 against Jimenez this season, with an infield single and base hit to right field.
Last year, Jimenez wasn't getting swings and misses or limiting hard contact. He's shown positive signs in both areas early this season, and if that continues, he can be the Tigers' best bullpen option.