Jeff Niemann got off to a very rough start in the first two months of his rookie campaign in 2009 as he struggled with walks, and particularly the long ball. In fact, Niemann allowed eight home runs in the first 52 innings of 2009 and some wondered if he was going to go the way of Dewon Brazelton as a high pitching draft pick that failed to live up to expectations. Then, a funny thing happened as the home runs stopped as he went nearly seven weeks from May 1st into late June without giving up a home run. Regression eventually caught up with him and he gave up nine home runs for the rest of 2009 to finish with 17 home runs surrendered in 180.2 IP which equates to a 0.9 HR/9 rate and 8% of his flyballs in play landed in the seats.
Pundits wondered if that lower home run rate was sustainable because Niemann had struggled with the long ball early in his career. Throughout the first 68 innings of his major league career, he gave up 11 homers which is the kind of scary rate that gets a pitcher stuck in AAA longer than he hopes to be there. Niemann was able to get it all together as he has given up just 13 homers in his last 172 innings and this season, he has an identical home run rate and HR/FB rate in 43.2 innings as he had for all of last season. With 240 innings of work under his belt, we can now look at Niemann as a neutral pitcher for flyball with a league average home run rate of 0.90 who has a 8% HR/FB rate. If he is right on pace with last season with his home run problems and his control is a bit improved from last year, why do I have the Debbie Downer tone about Niemann for the rest of 2010? It’s simple – his lack of dominance.
Despite the fact that Niemann has increased the usage of his split-fingered fastball in 2010 and is now showcasing 4-5 different pitch types in any given start, his strikeout rate has fallen to a professional low 5.8 thus far. In fact, since his time in 2006 in AA Montgomery, Niemann’s strikeout rate has fallen nearly every step of his statistical history:
2008 (MLB): 7.9
2009 (MLB): 6.2
2010 (MLB): 5.8
What is he doing differently you ask? Fangraphs shows us Niemann’s average fastball velocity has dropped from 92.3 in 2008 down to 91.0 so far this season. The loss of fastball velocity is a gain in his slider velocity as the 79mph sliders he threw in 2008 are coming in at 86mph these days. Outside of the increased slider velocity, split-finger usage, and decreased velocity on his fastball, Niemann’s other metrics have been remarkably consistent for a pitcher with just 240 innings of major league experience. That said, there are some anomalies in his 2010 stats that give pause for concern:
- 14% line drive rate: he has given up line drives at a 19% rate in his career so that is quite a drop-off
- holding batters to a .201 average. Opponents have hit .257 against him in his careeer so the .201 rate is a huge anomaly which is very much aided by the low line drive rate since those types of balls in play have the greatest percentage of translating into base hits.
- He is stranding 87% of his runners on base yet has a career strand rate of 75%
- His batting average on balls in play is just .221 this season while his career average is .291.
- His current ERA is 2.27 thanks to all of this statistical help but his FIP is 4.09 which shows what could happen if he was not currently enjoying such statistical fortune in his supporting stats.
Given that his home run and walk rates are in line with where he was last year, Niemann’s ERA will rise as some more of the “at ’em” balls that are finding defenders’ gloves start falling just out of reach of a diving Upton or Crawford or a ranging Longoria, Bartlett, and Zobrist. To Niemann’s credit, I tend to worry the least about the outcome of a game when he is pitching because he lulls me to sleep watching him pitch. He pounds the strike zone with a lot of fastballs and his gorgeous 11 to 5 curveball and has the same body language up 0-2 in a count or down 3-0 in a count. Compare that to James Shields who gets visibly upset at times in games at calls or Matt Garza who looks like he is always fighting his emotions and anger when pitching and you catch my drift. Wade Davis is very much in the same mold but his control scares me at times while Niemann is always around the plate these days. Call me crazy, but if the opportunity presented itself right now for the Rays to improve the offense by trading Niemann for a bat and clearing a spot for Jeremy Hellickson, I would be all for it.
The Rays are going to have to eventually do something to free up a rotation spot for Hellickson and what we are seeing right now from Niemann is as good as it gets for him. Here is a proposal for you – send the Rice alumnus back home to Houston in a deal to acquire Lance Berkman as the full-time DH with the Astros paying a good portion of Berkman’s deal. This would give the Astros a middle of the rotation starter for the next five seasons, something they’re going to need as Roy Oswalt and Wandy Rodriguez likely do not have long futures in the Houston area due to financial constraints. It is a short term deal on the Rays end – something that they have never done in the history of the franchise but adding a difference maker like Berkman would increase their playoff chances in what is shaping up to be a brutal AL-East division with everyone but the Orioles being a serious threat right now. As my good buddy Cory Schwartz of mlb.com says – “FFF = flags fly forever.”