Sometimes we forget they’re just like us.
Athletic ability tends to obscure the fact that professional athletes have their personal challenges too.
Tigers reliever Joe Jimenez has had his share.
Jimenez is a native of Puerto Rico, and when Hurricane Maria unleashed its Category 5 wrath on the Caribbean island last year, many families were left in shambles. Jimenez’s relatives were spared major damage, but they were forced to endure months without power.
“They were not hit as bad as other places because they live closer to San Juan,” Jimenez said of his family. They spent about five months without power, but as far as the actual house, they were fine.”
This past offseason, his family implored him to stay in the United States instead of returning home. “The told me to just stay there and not to come home,” he said. “There is no reason for you to be here, it’s crazy.”
So, Jimenez stayed back in Florida to work out and to prepare for the 2018 season. With the weight of his family’s struggles hanging over his head daily, Jimenez embarked on a plan to put 2017 behind him. It was a season of disappointment for the highly regarded prospect and a learning experience as well.
Coasting through the minor leagues with a career 1.56 ERA in the bushes, Jimenez was tagged with the label of the Tigers next closer. But, the talented right-hander hit a roadblock at the big league level. He made his major league debut last April with a clean inning against Minnesota, but it was all downhill from there. Fans clamoring for his promotion learned quickly that the big leagues often humble even the brightest of prospects. Jimenez pitched to a 12.32 ERA in 24 appearances with the Tigers.
Jimemez’s first mission in the offseason was to lose weight. At 6’3” 220, his size is something he has always been cognizant of. With that mission accomplished, working on his confidence would be the next task. That’s when Ron Gardenhire and his coaching staff entered the picture.
“Gardy told me he was going to give me the ball late in games and to just go out and pitch,” he said. “The whole staff just gives you confidence.”
Knowing he has a more defined role in this year’s bullpen had also helped him mentally. “Last year, I didn’t know when I would pitch or what the situation would be,” he said. “This year I feel more comfortable and the whole team trusts my work.”
This season Jimenez has pitched in the 8th and 9th inning exclusively. In 2017 he could be called on the pitch anywhere from the 4th to the 9th, and his role was far less defined.
The early success he has enjoyed in 2018 is much more in line with his minor league resume. In five minor league seasons, Jimenez dominated. He was named the Tigers’ Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2015 when he saved 30 games at three different levels in the Tigers system. A career WHIP under 1.00 and a strikeout rate of 13 per nine innings also illustrated how little he had left to prove down on the farm.
This season his fastball has touched 97 MPH and his slider has been razor sharp. More importantly, he has the trust of his manager. Gardenhire has said on many occasions this year that his players will determine where they fit on this club. Early indications are that Jimenez has carved out a late-inning niche.
With an added dose of confidence and knowing that his family is stable back home in Puerto Rico, Jimenez now has the piece of mind to concentrate on baseball. Will he become the Tigers future closer? The answer is a little clearer today than it was a year ago.