2009 was a big year for the big Texan. He came into camp in 2009 without a sure spot, made the team mainly because he was out of minor league options, and finished 2009 as one of the more reliable starters on the club. Niemann’s climb to the majors was as slow as his delivery to the plate as it was often derailed by some kind of ailment not foreign to front-line pitchers that come from a premier baseball school that annually competes deep into the NCAA College World Series as Rice does. Collegiate pitchers can accumulate high workloads and schools that compete at a high level such as Rice does can see pitchers have workloads higher than those pitchers in the minor leagues. For example, Niemann threw more innings in his second year at Rice than he had any level in the Rays organization until this past season and there is a lot of debate in the baseball world about the affects of heavy workloads on young arms that has raged on for nearly 20 years.
To best review Niemann, his season should be broken down into three phases: The first two months, the middle three, and the final month as it truly was a tale of three seasons for Niemann all wrapped into one.
Part I: April and May
Niemann went 4-4 in the first two months of the season with a 4.44 ERA, which were very respectable surface stats for those who follow those. Yet, the hold thing was a house of cards. Niemann’s FIP was 5.22 as opponents were hitting .282 against him, his strikeout to walk ratio was a very poor 1.3, his strikeout rate was a low 5.3, and he was permitting 1.4 homers per nine innings thanks to a 45% flyball rate. The only reason his ERA was not worse was because he was stranding 75% of his baserunners.
Part II: June -August
Niemann gave up his 11th home run of the season in a solid no-decision against the Marlins on May 23rd. Little did Rays fans know that would be the last home run Niemann gave up in May, June, and nearly all of July as he went nine starts without surrendering a longball. Niemann began using his curveball more and his control improved from the first two months. From June to August, Niemann threw 96 innings with a 3.47 ERA, a 5.8 strikeout rate, a 2.6 K/BB ratio, a 0.6 HR/9 rate, and permitted just 1.16 baserunners per nine innings. He improved his walk rate from 4.1 in the first two months to 2.3 over the next three months and reduced his flyball rate by seven percentage points and both of those improvements definitely fueled his success in this period. From June 1st until that start on July 23rd, Niemann was 4-0 with a 2.85 ERA.
Part III: September
Niemann came into September having pitched 147 innings through the first five months of the season – 14 more innings than he had pitched in any level of his professional career. 26 year old pitchers typically have built up more stamina by this point in their career but Niemann has had some injury issues he has fought since his days at Rice that have not allowed him to get more work. I fully expected Niemann to tire in September as he hit that threshold but he did well considering the bad luck he had. He had a 4.66 ERA in September, but his FIP was only 3.64. Niemann was done in by a .380 batting average on balls in play that was fueled by a 26% line drive rate on the month. Despite those issues, Niemann had his best month of the season striking out 28 batters in 29 innings and he had a 2. 5 strikeout to walk ratio.
Niemann clearly showed strong growth across the season but hit a wall physically in September as he and the team tired out going down the stretch which included that ugly losing streak that I would rather not re-visit. If you look at Niemann’s splits pre and post-all star break, his growth is quite noticeable.
In the first half, his production out-paced his stats but in the second half he was a very tough luck pitcher that made strong gains in his strikeouts, command of the strikezone, and kept the ball in the park. In fact, while James Shields and Matt Garza struggled in the second half, it was Niemann and David Price that were doing the best pitching on the staff. Not many noticed this after the Rays traded Scott Kazmir and essentially raised the white flag on the season whether fans want to admit it or not. Regardless of your opinion of that deal, the positive that came out of the second half is the young pitchers on the Rays staff stepped up and showed excellent growth down the stretch while being out of the spotlight. The work that Niemann did in the second half is exactly the kind of growth you want to see from rookie pitchers in their first year as many of those guys tend to fade off a lot earlier than September as they adjust to the biggest workload of their professional career.
How does all of this second half success translate to 2010? The table below show what the prognosticators have to say about Niemann’s 2010 potenital:
The projections are a bit sporadic in a few categories. There is a large variance in his K/9 projections as well as his walk rate and for some reason, fans at fangraphs.com are projecting Niemann will be hit around pretty hard in 2010. This is not surprising given Niemann’s relative inexperience which has led to a rather uncertain baseline for people to project off of. Rays fans should hope that Niemann continues to improve from his growth in the second half of the season and moves forward rather than reverts back to the inconsistent and charitable flyball pitcher he was to start the 2009 season.
Previous 2010 previews:
Carlos Pena (12/29)
Ben Zobrist (12/20)
B.J. Upton (12/3)
James Shields (11/29)