Jeff Niemann: Sell-High Candidate?

The fourth overall pick in the 2004 draft, Jeff Niemann took a his sweet time reaching the majors. Niemann, a towering 6-9, 280 pound righty, stuck out over a batter per inning on the farm, but shoulder problems stunted his progress. Entering 2009, he was 26, out of minor league options and had all of 16 big league innings to his name.

After posting a sub-four ERA as a full-time starter with the Rays in ’09, Niemann has seemingly stepped up his game in 2010. He owns a 2.54 ERA in 56.2 frames. Is Niemann finally pitching like the ace that the Rays envisioned when the team handed him a $5.2 million bonus and a major league contract back in ’04? Color me skeptical.

Last year, Niemann’s expected FIP (xFIP), based on K’s, walks and a normalized home run/fly ball rate, was 4.53. In 2010, its…4.49. He struck out 6.23 batters per nine innings in ’09, walking 2.94 per nine and posting a 40.5 GB%. This year, Niemann has traded some punch outs for a few less walks and a few more grounders — he has 5.72 K/9, 2.7 BB/9 and a 45.8 GB%. The extra ground balls appear to be the result of his going to a two-seam fastball with more sinking and tailing action.

Despite the marked decline in Niemann’s ERA, you’d have a hard time distinguishing his plate discipline stats from 2009 and 2010. Last season, Niemann got swings on pitches out of the strike zone 23.9%. This year, his O-Swing is 24% (25-27% MLB average). His contact rate was 84.3% in 2009, and 84.4% in 2010 (80-81% MLB average). Niemann is putting more pitches over the plate — his Zone% has increased from 52.1% to 53.8% (48-51% MLB average) — and his first pitch strike percentage has inched from 57.7% to 58.3%, right around the big league average. His swinging strike rate, 7% last year, is 6.6% in 2010 (8-8.5% MLB average).

The largest differences between Niemann ’09 and Niemann ’10 are in areas over which the pitcher exerts limited control. He has benefitted from a .244 batting average on balls in play. Tampa does play fantastic D, ranking fourth in the majors in team Ultimate Zone rating this season after placing third last year. But even so, that BABIP is going to regress significantly in the months to come.

Also, Niemann has stranded 84.5% of base runners, leaps and bounds above his 73.7% figure from 2009 and the 70-72% big league average. The big righty has a 7.6% home run/fly ball rate this year. That’s exactly the same as his ’09 mark, but it still seems likely that over the long run he’ll serve up a few more dingers and post a HR/FB mark closer to the 11% major leaguer average.

Jeff Niemann is a capable big league starter, a guy with the skill set of a 4-4.5 ERA pitcher. That has plenty of value to the Rays. But fantasy owners are best off marketing Niemann to fellow competitors as a former top prospect who is in the midst of a big breakout. Don’t be surprised if his results begin to resemble his 2009 work — Niemann is basically the same guy.




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A recent graduate of Duquesne University, David Golebiewski is a contributing writer for Fangraphs, The Pittsburgh Sports Report and Baseball Analytics. His work for Inside Edge Scouting Services has appeared on ESPN.com and Yahoo.com, and he was a fantasy baseball columnist for Rotoworld from 2009-2010. He recently contributed an article on Mike Stanton's slugging to The Hardball Times Annual 2012. Contact David at david.golebiewski@gmail.com and check out his work at Journalist For Hire.


15 Responses to “Jeff Niemann: Sell-High Candidate?”

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  1. MattyG says:

    that’s what i’ve been telling my leaguemates. they continue to look at me like i have 2 heads. when the regression happens they’ll forget all about my nostradomous like abilities (thanks fangraphs) and once again ignore my sage advice. i love fantasy baseball!

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  2. JoelQ says:

    Niemann has magically FIP beating qualities. It’s because of his 6-foot-9edness, it makes him different enough from almost all other pitchers.

    And the great defense helps.

    He has been low pitch counts which help him each outing.

    Last year he got much better as the year went along, I expect the same this year.

    Not that he will stay undefeated all year. It’s easy to say there will be regression when an ERA is 2.5 but if he finishes over 4 then I’ll eat my hat.

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    • joelQ says:

      If you hit your spots on the corners you will have good babip against.

      Also of note, velocity is down considerably from last year.

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      • joelq says:

        Won’t stay .245, but could see it in the .280 range, possibly even .270.

        That won’t necessarily make him worse, as I fully expect K rate to improve as the year goes along.

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      • Southsider says:

        What are you basing that BABIP theory on? Roy Halladay hits his corners better than probably any pitcher in the game, how do you explain his BABIP?

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  3. cobra9 says:

    Lower velocity is most likely the fact that he uses a 2 seamer about half the time now.

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  4. Reuben says:

    Don’t care if it’s him or Davis, someone needs to make room for Hellickson.

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  5. Vida Blue says:

    Since I have Strasburg stashed, I traded him for another overachiever, Vernon Wells. Can I get an amen from the FanGraphs commentariat — or otherwise?

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    • Carlino says:

      I am (was) in same situation. I actually originally traded C. Lee for Niemann. I got one decent starts out of him, then flipped him for B. Hawpe. I essentially traded Lee for Hawpe, which I thought was pretty good. I’d have to say tho, I like your deal better.

      Still patiently waiting on Strasburg.

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  6. Guancous says:

    Would you trade Niemann straight up for Scherzer in a redraft league?

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  7. joelQ says:

    Roy Halladay had very good babip years back-to-back .269 and .279, before he started pitching for K. Now it’s more normal.

    Niemann has a huge platoon split. Except he’s normal against lefties, dominant vs righties. It’s like Masterson except better.

    Many fangraphians suggest babip isn’t going to be 300 on guys with big platoon splits. Usually it’s the opposite handed batters being well above 300, in this case its the same handed batters being well below.

    Again .245 is too good but I wouldn’t be surprised if he is .270 (also factoring in great defense). Compare him to other 6-foot-9 pitchers. You can’t because there aren’t enough. His height makes him different enough that players aren’t getting the solid contact. They are used to pitchers in the 6-ffot-2 to 6-foot-5 range.

    The man out in the TB rotation should be Garza via trade. Get something for the future, promote Hellickson and break even on the present. Or get a good bat for him. A Catcher preferrably.

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  8. blakelym says:

    Yeah, that’s right. Let Tampa Bay trade away a Matt Garza to bring up a Hellickson. You may miss Garza sooner than you think. Hellickson is not close to Strasburg potential; in fact, Wade Davis has better potential than Hellickson. If Tampa is smart, Hellickson will stay right were he is and wait until next year. It is not smart to throw away pitching just to get bats or to get a catcher. Defensive catchers are a dime a dozen. Solid pitching is expensive and hard to acquire in trades. You can trade too much for a bat. Look at the Atlanta Braves two years ago when they gave up Elivs Andures, Neftali Feliz, Matt Harrison and Jarrod “Salty”. Think the Braves would do that same trade again? I like the way Tampa Bay is building for the “now” and the future. Good model. Wish the Braves would take notes.

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    • Dave says:

      I agree with both of you. If Hellickson were brought up, it makes more sense to trade someone like Garza for other pieces. But I don’t think he should be brought up, unless they’re sure his ceiling is higher than that of Wade Davis.

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  9. brentgriffin says:

    I also agree that Niemann’s babip will regress, however not as much as I would have guessed after I just saw that his LD% is 13.9!!! Thats crazy. With that kind of LD%, there is no way he go above .290.

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