Brewers Ready for Jimmy Nelson, Who’s Not Quite Ready

The Brewers opened a hole in their rotation once they traded Yovani Gallardo to the Rangers, obviously. Some pundits guessed that Milwaukee had made the move in order to clear the way to sign free agent James Shields or trade for rumored chip Jordan Zimmermann. GM Doug Melvin put such beliefs to rest shortly after the swap by stating that the spot is Jimmy Nelson’s, however. Akin moves are more his style, really, and it’s about time for the right-hander, who’ll be 26 in June.

Nelson’s spike in projected playing time should drive up interest from fantasy baseball players, naturally. How much more interest is justifiable? That’s not a question with a simple answer.

Nelson looks the part. He was a second-round pick in 2010. He was the Brew Crew’s No. 1 prospect following the 2013 season, according to Baseball America; their No. 2 prospect entering 2014, according to Marc Hulet; and a BA top-50 prospect overall by last season’s midpoint, before his promotion to the bigs that year. At 6-foot-6 and 245 pounds, he’s a big, beefy, ace-looking creature.

Nelson has other things going for him. He’s avoided significant injury thus far, the only blemish a mild strain of the rotator cuff in his right shoulder in 2012. He has above-average velocity. And he has a couple of really good pitches.

Nelson features two fastballs, more notably a sinker, which has constituted a little more than half of his offerings in his 79 1/3 innings as a major leaguer. The results on the sinker haven’t been good, but, by PITCHf/x outcomes, it could be really good, with a ground-ball rate of greater than 55%. Nelson’s slider is supposed to be pretty good, too, because of the whiffs (19.8% in The Show thus far). Overall, he’s coaxed ground balls more than 48% of the time in the bigs, backed up by his rate of nearly 55% in his last 536 2/3 frames on the farm, according to his Minor League Central page. (MLC’s MLB batted-ball data differs from FanGraphs’, you might notice.)

Nelson’s primary roadblocks have been his difficulties against left-handed batters and in trying to get through the order more than once. The baseball gods didn’t favor him against RHBs last season in the majors, but his numbers against LHBs are the discouraging ones. This was true, in general, of his splits in the minors, too, although his MiLB splits were much better in 2014. BA attributed that development to his much improved location of his fastballs. The splits on his times through the lineup are worrisome. Jeff Zimmerman observed the issue during one of Nelson’s MLB starts last season.

The BA article and Sullivan both point at an integral problem for Nelson: His rarely used changeup isn’t yet a weapon. This has long been documented, though. Recent instance: Just prior to the Gallardo trade, the offering was the focus of a Fox Sports Wisconsin piece. The point is well-taken: A better change piece would surely improve the righty’s results.

The concern for the forthcoming season is the lack of indication that the change will ever be a good pitch for him. In the local Fox piece, Nelson insisted that he’s thrown it more often than people realize. That could be, if anything, damning, because it suggests that he might sometimes throw the pitch harder and PITCHf/x identifies it as something else. Therefore, it wouldn’t consistently have the separation of velocities considered helpful if it’s not going to move much differently from the way a pitcher’s fastballs do.

Jimmy Nelson changeup slider movement

Based on the limited data for Nelson’s change, it’s not a pitch for strikeouts. The door might be open for it to get ground balls, though. We’ll see – maybe. He has to commit to bettering and throwing the offering, first. He expressed confidence in the pitch in a FanGraphs interview back in April 2013, too, but, at this point, if he actually thought it was good, then he’d actually be throwing it.

Still, Eno’s nice feature on Fox’s Just a Bit Outside points out that not every pitcher needs a changeup. What we also can’t know, unfortunately, is whether Nelson can throw a looping curveball – Eno’s alternative to the change – effectively. How difficult of a process is it for hurlers to add such a perceivably tough-to-command pitch this late, relatively speaking, in their lifetimes? I’m curious.

Nelson can certainly overcome some of the other things he must. As the above image shows, his command of the slider appears to be inconsistent. Command in general hasn’t always been there for him, from one stretch of a season to another or even from one stanza to another. Such is life with young pitchers, especially tall ones. His release points have been inconsistent, but not drastically so, I don’t think, at least on the vertical axis, and they should continue to tighten up as he matures. His walk rates are disturbing, but he’s demonstrated an ability to get on top of the free pass at each level, eventually.

Nelson, like countless pitchers before him, has a great foundation for MLB success, with a grounder-leaning arsenal and some strikeout ability. As he and multiple writers have pointed out, and as evidenced by his walk rates, he’s improved considerably in his second go-round at each level. The thing is, those steps all came in the minors. The biggest leap any starting pitcher can make will require the improvement of a changeup that he’s never felt very confident throwing and/or may never be any good … or the development of a different pitch, like a big breaker … or to throw the four-seamer or slider with more conviction and for different purposes, and perhaps to get a little lucky, the way Justin Masterson did in 2011 or 2013.

Whichever path Nelson may follow will take time. Right now, his focus seems to be on the change, and it’s been the focus of others for some time. It could become better this year, but there’s reason to doubt that. If it doesn’t, then who knows how long the thing would take, if it happens at all. I don’t think of the Brewers as a great organization when it comes to the development of pitchers, the diagnosis of varying faults, or the prescription of good fixes, either. Masterson, also an imposing figure, tried that four-seam approach after a year and a half in Cleveland, so by next season, Nelson could “break through” if he finds that map. But that road leads only to temporary success, as Masterson learned.

In a redrafter, then, Nelson isn’t attractive to me. The Steamer projection, however, hints at upside, of course. Off the cuff, I’ll say that I’d be willing to take a shot in the reserve rounds or flier rounds of a 15-team mixed league, maybe even throw a buck or two at him. In an NL-only league, he’d have roughly a $4 to $6 cap for me, I think. I imagine that he’ll cost a tad more than that in the Senior Circuit-exclusive setups. The fact that he gets to face the pitcher and often awful hitters in the eighth spot helps his chances to be useful this coming season, at least. He could be really good for a lengthy stretch or two.

I think that Nelson’s future is brighter than Masterson’s turned out to be. The former, at the very least, has more information about ways to improve available to him than the latter did just a few years ago. Plus, there’s the younger pitcher’s somewhat greater physical skills. I’d give him another go as an undervalued player or sleeper if Nelson were to have poor results in the next year or three.

I can’t help but think that Nelson’s breakthrough as a starter wouldn’t occur until he’s somewhere else. I’d probably keep coming back for similar shots, knowing that he is, like Masterson or Lance Lynn was, some alteration away from a really good fantasy campaign, either way. I’d need to see many more signs in the complementary pitch department before I’d think of him as a reliable dynasty piece, however.

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Nicholas Minnix oversaw baseball content for six years at KFFL, where he held the loose title of Managing Editor for seven and a half before he joined FanGraphs. He played in both Tout Wars and LABR from 2010 through 2014. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasMinnix.

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Skin Blues
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Skin Blues

If he’s solid against righties he can be streamed when he faces the Braves/Marlins/Phillies/Cubs/Padres/D’Backs/etc. The NL overall is better against LHP whereas the AL is better against RHP. And two teams in the NL (Dodgers and Cardinals) have a high concentration of the NL talent against righties so it’s easy enough to avoid starts against them. Still, would be nice to see him find a pitch he can use to balance the platoon splits, and if the change isn’t working maybe he needs to try a curve.