If you answered both have a strikeout rate above 24%, a walk rate below 6%, and the exact same FIP before Saturday’s slate of games, you’re correct! I’m a big fan of arbitrary thresholds for drawing comparisons between players, even when it works in the opposite direction of my above example. Why don’t we try another?
What do Bronson Arroyo and Jordan Zimmermann have in common?
If you answered they’re the only qualified pitchers in baseball with FIPs above 6, you’re correct! Also of note, Zimmermann is roughly 10% more owned than Arroyo. To all those out there who stopped managing your teams in week two, football season doesn’t start for another 13 weeks; you have no excuse.
Over the last few years, I would bet the majority of us have scratched the Jimmy Nelson itch at one point or another. Often returning mediocre to very mediocre results, we now find ourselves looking at Nelson among the league’s top 25 pitchers peripherally, wondering what we did to deserve the DL laden crop of arms that is 2017’s starting pitchers.
A lot has changed with Nelson starting with the altering of his delivery, which Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs breaks down very nicely at the end of his recent column on on the Brewers’ new ace. With an arm slot adjustment that reminds some of James Paxton’s below three-quarters alteration in June of last season, Nelson has seen an extremely attractive refinement of his control (10.7% walk rate in 2016, 5.8% walk rate in 2017). The reason we’re buzzing about Nelson now instead of back in April is because his first five starts of the season looked like the same old sub 8 K/9 tentativeness we became accustomed to. With a 4.44 FIP, his control refined only slightly down to 8%, with too few strikeouts to pay more than a passing thought of attention at roughly 18%, Nelson began 2017 as he had every other season. In Nelson’s most recent seven starts however, it’s a completely different story. Posting a 2.52 xFIP (FIP with league average HR/FB rate assumed instead of actual HR/FB) in a park that has buoyed left handed power for the last few season is impressive enough. Add to that a 24.6% strikeout minus walk percentage, and what we’re looking at has gone well past the fluke assumption the majority of Brewers fans likely held out of the gate.
In search of more tangible evidence for Nelson’s change in effectiveness outside of arm slot and refined control, we stumble upon a nice trend between his month-over-month curveball usage in 2017 and the resulting effects.
It’s important to point out that Nelson’s curveball jump has predominantly come against left handed hitters. The pitch, currently used 12% more often on lefties than righties, it’s a minor uptick from the prior year, but one with beneficial results in a park that buoys left handed bats. Nelson in 2017 has become a reverse splits pitcher, shown by the 62 point drop to .278 in his wOBA against lefties – thanks to that curveball – with his effectiveness versus right handed bats stagnant, and unfortunately below league average. Am I slightly worried that right handed bats are still Nelson’s crux (.352 wBOA against in 2017)? Yes, but not as worried as I’d be if Nelson was failing to mitigate the effects of left handed hitters in Miller Park. The fact that Nelson has lingered around the zone so much this season – nearly 51% of the time, fifth among qualified pitchers – is duly impressive given that his contact rate against is down 4.3% as well.
Whether this is the Brewers’ 28 year-old finally figuring out the mix of pitches that work best for him, or the result of the league’s lapse in quick adjustment to Nelson’s changes remains to be seen, but even as one digs below the surface, nothing is wildly concerning about the profile Nelson has put on display in the most recent months of 2017. With the state of pitching this season, nothing wildly concerning is as good of an endorsement as you’re going to get for an arm that was floating around waivers two weeks ago.
As I usually like closing out columns with a look at projected rest of season performance per the fantastic Razzball Player Rater, you can imagine I was a bit perplexed with why Jimmy Nelson was ranked 256th overall, projected for a poor 4.62 ERA with only 68 strikeouts over 78 more innings. With an adjustment likely coming that factors in Nelson’s many changes, the most important of which look to be above the stabilization window, I’m here to speculate on what that line may actually look like. Keep in mind, Mike Trout’s rest of season value has inflated since Steamer started assuming 70 games played rest of season instead of it’s prior sub-60 game total, which I detailed in my last column. Lesson to be learned? Keep reading my columns!
Here is what I think we can realistically expect from Nelson rest of season. The big difference between other projection systems and my optimistic beliefs is my confidence in Nelson’s strikeout rate and control playing up rest of season. Razzball has Nelson around an 8 K/9, while Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA has Nelson even lower. Rarely do we see a 24% strikeout rate backed up decently with a 10.4% swinging strike rate and meticulously refined control to raise the floor on his WHIP, turn out to be a complete fluke.
105 IP, 97 Ks, 3.8 ERA, 1.27 WHIP
This line has Nelson posting around an 8.5 K/9 rest of season with a bit more confidence in his current control sticking with a drop from the strikeout ceiling he has produced in the months of May and June. Placing him inside the top 40 starters rest of season around names like Michael Fulmer and Aaron Nola, I don’t think it’s crazy to think we’re looking at a pitcher of that caliber. If you want to be even more confident in the league taking its sweet time to adjust back, pushing Nelson to a 9-9.5 K/9 with a ERA more in the 3.6 area would get him into the top 30 around names like Steven Matz and Robbie Ray (per Razzball rest of season projections).
I like sticking to my optimistic baseline window on Nelson with hopes of more. If you can find a Michael Fulmer believer and get him to add another small piece with Nelson, I have no problem sticking on the Nelson side of that trade. As always, feel free to post any questions and comments below.
Follow me on Twitter if your heart desires, always talking baseball and fantasy @LanceBrozdow.