I’m enamored with Jimmy Nelson. I’ll get that out of the way immediately. Fair or unfair — and rational or irrational for that matter — I am a sucker for big pitchers, and Nelson fits the bill at 6-6 and 245 pounds. He’s built like a workhorse and has avoided any significant injuries. That said, he’s yet to eclipse the 200-innings mark. After pitching 180.1 innings across Triple-A and the majors last year, he’s in a position to make 2015 his first season of reaching or exceeding 200 innings. As you’ve probably guessed as a result of sharing my infatuation with Nelson, I expect them to be very good innings.
The big right-hander had little trouble picking apart Triple-A hitters in the hitter-friendly confines of the Pacific Coast League in 17 appearances (16 starts) last season. He totaled a 2.97 FIP and paired a glowing 26.5% K with a nifty 7.4% BB. Nelson also did a great job of keeping the ball on the ground with a 57.3% groundball rate, per Minor League Central. Things didn’t go as smoothly in the majors.
Last year, the Brewers called on him to make 14 appearances (12 starts), and while his 4.93 ERA wasn’t pretty, his 3.78 FIP, 3.92 xFIP and 3.76 SIERA all suggested brighter days were on the horizon. He was undone by a poor left-on-base percentage (something he’d struggled with at times in the minors, but had mostly navigated in the upper minors) and sky high BABIP. The rookie hurler continued to keep the ball on the ground at a high rate, 48.4%, limited his free passes, 6.1% BB, but left something to be desired with a good-not-great 18.3% K that fell short of the league average of 20.4%. His swinging strike rate of 9.2% was not far off from the league average of 9.4%, so expectations of an uptick in strikeout rate were warranted.
Thus far this year, his strikeout rate has risen. He owns a 21.1% K, but his 9.7% BB is also up from his 2014 mark. Don’t worry, his walk rate is skewed by an ugly turn in which he walked five batters in 2.1 innings. ZiPS projects his walk rate to slip further and Steamer projects him to continue to walk batters at roughly the same rate. I’m more bullish on his outlook as a result of his work last year. Glancing over his plate discipline numbers, I’d expect the 25-year old’s walk rate to hover around the league average. Speaking of his plate discipline numbers, they’re chiefly why I’m so excited about Nelson’s outlook for the rest of the year.
Nelson is posting an 11.4% swinging strike rate, 2.1% better than the league average, and good for tied for 10th among qualified starters. One of the guys he’s tied with is named Felix Hernandez, maybe you’ve heard of him. Hitters are fishing out of the strike zone at Nelson’s offerings 34.3% of the time, which is better than the league average of 30.0%. If he continues to miss bats at his current rate — or anything near it — his strikeout rate will be on the rise. In order to understand whether we should expect him to continue generating so many empty swings, it’s necessary to look at how he’s doing it.
Eno took an in-depth look at Nelson’s spring addition of a spike curve to his repertoire. It hasn’t taken Nelson long to develop trust in the pitch. The curve is his most used secondary offering at 22.20%, according to Brooks Baseball. It’s inducing a 14.74% whiff rate and coaxing a 50.00% groundball rate on balls put in play. He’s essentially scrapped his changeup (two thrown) in favor of the curveball as his answer for retiring lefties. Nelson has allowed a .322 wOBA to lefties this season, but he’s missing bats and keeping the ball on the ground against them. So far, so good with the curve.
As good as his curveball is, it’s his slider that should elicit cheers from the peanut gallery. Already a nasty put-away pitch last year with a 21.22% whiff rate, he’s really tying up hitters this year to the tune of a 27.03% whiff rate. His breaking balls are setup nicely by his 93-plus mph fourseam fastball and sinker. The total package is a well-rounded repertoire capable of mowing down hitters, and he ties the bat missing together nicely with a 51.3% groundball rate on balls in play. I’m buying into Nelson as a fringe top-50 arm going forward, and he gets bonus points in leagues that substitute quality starts for wins since he won’t be relying on the anemic Milwaukee Brewers offense for a portion of his fantasy value.
You can follow Josh on Twitter @bchad50.