In some organizations, right-hander Jeff Niemann would be star pupil of the pitching staff. The 26 year-old did not have the most pristine bill of health in the minor leagues, dealing with intermittent shoulder problems, but he punched out over a batter per inning while displaying average control. The 4th overall selection out of Rice in the 2004 draft stands a towering 6-foot-9, with a 260+ pound frame that pumps low-90’s gas.
As a Tampa Bay Ray, however, Niemann is just another promising arm for a team boasting a veritable assembly line of premium pitching prospects. Regardless, fantasy owners will want to take note of Niemann’s more dominant performances in the second half. Take a look at his peripherals from April-June, and then July-September:
April-June: 79.2 IP, 5.08 K/9, 3.95 BB/9
July-September: 81.2 IP, 6.72 K/9, 1.65 BB/9
Since July, Niemann has boosted his K rate, while simultaneously paring his rate of free passes issued by a considerable amount. While it could be dangerous to just assume that he will continue to perform more toward the July-September spectrum than the mundane April-June stretch, there are differences in Niemann’s plate discipline numbers that could help explain his excellent run of starts.
During April of 2009, Niemann pitched tentatively. He didn’t locate many offerings within the strike zone, often getting behind in the count with low first-pitch strike percentages. In May and June, Niemann continued to fall behind the batter often. Perhaps in an attempt to compensate, Niemann lobbed more pitches over the plate after the batter got the advantage. This led to plenty of contact against him:
April: 45.9 First-Pitch Strike%, 89.6 Z-Contact%
May: 53.5 F-Strike%, 94 Z-Contact%
June: 54.8 F-Strike%, 92.9 Z-Contact%
(MLB averages are 58.2 for F-Strike% and 87.8 for Z-Contact%)
Since July, though, Niemann is forcefully taking control of the count. His first-pitch strike percentage has soared, and opposing batters aren’t touching quite as many of his pitches within the strike zone:
July: 65 F-Strike%, 88.6 Z-Contact%
August: 64.2 F-Strike%, 88.9 Z-Contact%
September: 66.1 F-Strike%, 91 Z-Contact%
So, what has changed? Niemann has not budged from his fastball-centric approach:
Pct. of fastballs thrown
He has tossed the pitch over 73% of the time in 2009, with positive results (+0.87 runs/100 pitches thrown). Niemann does not mix in very many breaking pitches, but he has increasingly relied upon his mid-70’s curveball as opposed to a slurvy low-80’s slider since July. That’s a positive change, considering the curve has been worth +0.50 runs/100 pitches thrown during his big league career, while the slider (-1.17) has been slaughtered.
Niemann appears to be a much more polished hurler than the guy chucking fastballs in the general vicinity of home plate back in the spring. He is locating his above-average heater much better, leaping ahead in the count and putting hitters in his clutches (getting ahead of the batter, obviously, pays huge dividends). Niemann has also put an ineffective slurve on the backburner, instead choosing to throw a solid mid-70’s curve with plenty of downward movement. The former Rice star went back to the drawing board, evolving into a more efficient, dominant starter.
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