With last night complete game shutout victory, Jeff Niemann is now leading the Rays team in victories with eight. In fact, the Rays have the highest winning percentage this year in games which Niemann pitches as they have won 75% of the games in which Niemann started despite the fact only 38% of his starts have been quality starts. As covered in an earlier blog post, if James Shields could receive the kind of run support Niemann has received this year, Shields would be in the all-star game. Niemann has been on quite a roll since June 1st as he has a 4-0 record with a 2.37 ERA in the six starts he has made in that time. While the recent success is very nice and has been a big part of the Rays hot run of late, one has to wonder how sustainable Niemann’s success for the rest of the season.
The table below shows Niemann’s splits since he turned the corner with his first complete game shutout of the season against the Royals on June 3rd.
Niemann’s biggest problem early one was the longball as he surrendered eight homers in his first 51 innings on the season. The other issue was his very low 1.3 strikeout to walk ratio. His strikeout rate in the first two months of the season was 5.3, but his walk rate was up to 4.1. Since June 1st, his strikeout rate has fallen to an even 5.0 but he also has his walk rate down to 3.6. That said, a 1.4 strikeout to walk ratio is still 30% lower than the league average of 2.0. A closer look at Niemann’s splits show that most of the change in Niemann’s results come from a big drop in the batting average on balls in play – a 53 point drop. That, and his home run problem has completely disappeared as he has allowed zero homers in his last six starts. What has he changed?
A four percent drop in flyballs can totally erase a home run problem? Not a chance. Niemann is in the midst of a very fortunate string of HR/FB suppression as none of his last 47 fly balls have left the yard. Compare that to the fact that eight of his first 76 left the yard and you should expect the homers to come back around sometime soon as it is impossible for a pitcher with less than a 1.0 groundball to flyball ratio to continue to suppress homeruns like this.
If Niemann has essentially shown little change in his baseline skills, why the recent success? Some have speculated that the big reason is that he is using his curveball more. However, the increased usage of his breaking pitches is only part of the story. The chart below compares some of Niemann’s bad starts early in the season to his starts during the recent run.
Early in the season, Niemann was throwing a lot of breaking balls but not many for strikes and he was taking the loss in all of them. Since June 1st, when Niemann throws strikes at or above the league average of 1.9 and utilizes his breaking pitches in at least 25% of his offerings, he wins.
When Niemann’s strike to ball ratio is below league average, he is not winning no matter how many breaking pitches he is throwing. Niemann has pretty much scrapped his changeup in favor of a fastball-curveball-slider mix that is working very well for him right now but the true key to his continued success hinges upon his ability to throw the best pitch in the book – strike one.
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