How Joe Jimenez grew into Detroit Tigers' closer role: 'Obviously, I learned'

Anthony Fenech
Detroit Free Press

CHICAGO — Joe Jimenez should have been one of the Detroit Tigers’ bigger story lines.

For years, the right-hander had been groomed as the team’s closer of the future.

It began in the minor leagues, with stelar numbers leading to a rapid rise through the system. He struggled in his rookie year, then parlayed an outstanding first half in 2018 into an AL All-Star appearance.

His numbers this year might not suggest he improved much. In 65 appearances this season, Jimenez has posted a 4.30 ERA and a 1.330 WHIP with 81 strikeouts and 23 walks. In 68 appearances last season, he posted a 4.31 ERA and a 1.197 WHIP with 78 strikeouts and 22 walks. But that would be ignoring the change in his role. 

When the Tigers traded righty Shane Greene to the Atlanta Braves at the trade deadline, the closer job was finally Jimenez’s. And in 18 appearances since, he’s done nothing to lose hold of the job next season, posting a 2.70 ERA and 1.440 WHIP over the final two months of 2019.

Detroit Tigers reliever Joe Jimenez pitches in the ninth inning against the New York Yankees at Comerica Park, Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019.

“In some way, I was kind of used to it,” Jimenez said. “Because throwing the eighth, it was kind of the same thing that you do in the ninth, just a different inning.

“I felt comfortable from the start, because I came from the minor leagues and I was closing all of those years and I felt like it was something that was in me.”

Jimenez is 7-for-8 in save opportunities. In addition to the new job, Jimenez has experienced a big change in his home run total; he allowed just five homers last year, and is at 12 allowed this season. Of course, home runs are up all around baseball, and not just when Jimenez pitches.

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“To be honest, the numbers don’t say how good or bad you are,” he said. “Sometimes, you have great numbers but when you see a guy, you’re like, ‘How the heck, no way.’ So it’s tricky and I don’t pay attention to that too much, because I feel good now.

“It doesn’t matter how good or bad my numbers are, it’s just something that’s an everyday thing. You don’t think too much about it, just go work hard day-by-day.”

But perhaps the biggest difference between this year and last is the way that Jimenez —still just 24 years old — is finishing the season.

Last year, he struggled in the second half, posting a 7.78 ERA and 1.424 WHIP after his All-Star appearance. Chalk that up to his first time going through the rigors of a full big-league season.

This year, he has pitched much better down the stretch: In higher-leverage situations, Jimenez hasn’t allowed a run in eight innings this month, striking out 11 batters.

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But as the closer of an 112-loss team, Jimenez’s services haven’t been needed often. He remains inconsistent and prone to making poor pitch selections, especially ahead in the count, but Jimenez has shown himself to be up for the challenge.

“To be honest, I can’t take away something from this season, just because we’re not winning,” Jimenez said. “I can’t say something just because it’s something that’s good for me, because the team, we haven’t been winning.

“But overall, I just thought it was a pretty good year. Obviously, I learned and obviously, this is a process for us. I felt good overall and I’ll take that with me.”

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