This past Sunday, I headed to downtown Oklahoma City to see the Redhawks, Houston’s Triple-A affiliate, take on the Nashville Sounds. The starting pitcher for the Sounds was Jimmy Nelson, the top pitching prospect in Milwaukee’s system. I hadn’t yet gotten the chance to see Nelson pitch in person, and I was looking forward to seeing him do so against a strong Oklahoma City lineup that included Jon Singleton, Domingo Santana, Max Stassi and Robbie Grossman.
Nelson is a pretty imposing figure on the mound, standing 6’5″ and weighing 245 pounds. The University of Alabama product has the type of frame that I can easily picture handling 200+ innings a year; he tossed a total of 162.1 frames in 2013.
Statistically, the 24-year-old had an uneven 2013, as he struggled to make the adjustment from Double-A to Triple-A, before receiving a 10-inning cup of coffee in the majors:
- Double-A: 69 IP, 2.74 ERA, 2.81 FIP, 9.39 K/9, 1.96 BB/9
- Triple-A: 83.1 IP, 3.67 ERA, 3.64 FIP, 9.83 K/9, 5.40 BB/9
Clearly, the problem was the dramatic increase in walks, but it wasn’t the first time Nelson had this specific problem adjusting to a higher level of competition. Let’s take a look at 2012, when he made the jump from High-A to Double-A:
- High-A: 81.1 IP, 2.21 ERA, 3.09 FIP, 8.52 K/9, 2.77 BB/9
- Double-A: 46 IP, 3.91 ERA, 4.49 FIP, 8.22 K/9, 7.24 BB/9
This year, the pattern has continued. Starting the year in Triple-A, he has shown marked improvement in his walk rate compared to his 83.1 innings at the level to finish 2013:
- 32 IP, 1.97 ERA, 2.91 FIP, 8.72 K/9, 2.53 BB/9
There were two specific things I wanted to keep an eye on, based on what I’ve read and heard about Nelson. The first was whether he would show an effective change-up. Scouts’ opinions on his change seem to be mostly negative, but over the last year or so, I’ve seen some encouraging things about the change and Nelson’s ability to be more than a two-pitch guy. The second thing I wanted to focus on was his mechanics. Pretty much everything I’d heard about Nelson is that his delivery is messy and inconsistent, with lots of moving parts.
For the first two innings, I saw much of what I was afraid of. Regarding the change-up, I didn’t see one in those first two frames, it was all fastball/slider. As for the mechanics, he looked more refined than I expected, as his delivery looked fluid and easy, with consistent arm speed/angle and a smooth transfer of balance, especially for a guy of his size. The problem was his release point, which was absolutely all over the place.
As a result, Nelson labored through the first two innings, allowing three hits in the first inning, then walking two in the second. He appeared visibly frustrated, working extremely slowly, repeatedly shaking off catcher Robinzon Diaz, stepping off the mound, etc. He managed to get through the first two innings with limited damage (only one run), but it was the sort of pitching that gets crooked numbers on the board in the majors more often than not.
Then came the third inning, when the good version of Jimmy Nelson showed up. With his release point under control, he looked completely dominant, consistently burying his fastball and slider on the corners low in the zone. Also, he started to mix in the change. In the bottom of the fifth, he struck out Andy Simunic and Grossman to start the inning, and both went down looking at the change. In Grossman’s case, it wasn’t even fair. He took a 96-mph fastball just a bit high for ball three, before Nelson dropped in a 79 mph change for strike three, a 17-mph difference.
From the third inning through the seventh, Nelson allowed just three hits, with no walks and six strikeouts. The only run he surrendered was the result of a wind-aided double by Gregorio Petit in the sixth (the wind was blowing out to left-center at 20-25 mph all game). His four-seam fastball sat in the 94-96 mph range with late arm-side movement; he touched 97 three times and reached 98 once. The slider showed sharp horizontal bite in the 85-87 mph range and he wasn’t afraid to throw it, as he used four consecutive sliders to punch out Stassi in the sixth.
Once he started throwing his change, the offering was pretty consistently 82-83 mph except for the 79-mph pitch to Grossman and one other that registered at 80. It doesn’t have particularly impressive movement, but if he can consistently locate the pitch with a 12+ mph differential from the fastball, it’ll play. He also flashed a two-seam fastball three times; it came in at 90-91 mph and showed pretty good sink.
Let’s go back for a moment to the idea of Nelson struggling to adjust to new levels. Interestingly, Mike Newman’s April 2013 article that I cited earlier has a golden nugget of info in the comments section. User “Pinstripe Wizard” had the following to say about Nelson’s career at The University of Alabama:
“His first two years in Tuscaloosa were disappointing from a results standpoint. He had great stuff, but was erratic at best. He would walk someone or hit a batter and his control just fell apart. It looked like he was trying to make perfect pitches to correct the earlier mistake and it snowballed on him. His draft year was when he finally started to show the results to go with the stuff. He attacked hitters in the zone more often and had a brilliant season. I think Nelson is going to be a guy that struggles a bit in his first taste at most any level due to the smaller strikezones/better plate discipline at higher levels. Once he figures out that he can’t nibble at each level, he seems to produce wonderful results.”
That’s an excellent summary, and thinking back, what I saw on Sunday was sort of a microcosm of this larger issue. For the first two innings, he struggled with the strike zone, didn’t trust his change-up, and his frustration threatened to send him off the rails. However, by the third inning, he was pounding the zone with all three pitches and he was lights-out for the rest of the outing.
The obvious question raised by all this is whether to expect the walk rate to spike again when he gets the call to the majors. After all, he struggled mightily with free passes making the transition from High-A to Double-A, and again from Double-A to Triple-A. What I saw on Sunday is one of those players who isn’t quite ready for the majors yet, but is very close. If he got called up right now, I wouldn’t be terribly optimistic about his chances, and would likely predict another troublesome adjustment period.
Alternately, if Nelson can learn to harness his delivery (specifically find some consistency with the release point) and trust his change a bit more, he could be a solid No. 3 starter for the Brewers for years to come, and would be far more likely to have a smooth transition to the majors. Those things could come together for Nelson in the next month or two, they also may never actualize at all.
The Jimmy Nelson that I saw from the third through seventh innings on Sunday would be an above-average major-league starter right now. It’s just too bad that those first two innings force me to temper my enthusiasm ever so slightly.
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