Milwaukee Brewers: Buying Into Jimmy Nelson


Yesterday, the Milwaukee Brewers finalized the trade sending Yovani Gallardo and $4 mil to the Texas Rangers for pitchers Corey Knebel and Marcos Diplan and infielder Luis Sardinas. The Brewers subtracted from their rotation one of the best pitchers in franchise history, someone who has been a solid (if unspectacular) performer for the team since his debut in 2006. In trading Gallardo, the Brewers freed up $9 mil in payroll space, and they are able to shed roughly $50 mil in salary at the end of this season with six expiring contracts. There were many reports speculating that the Brewers could make a run at a big name pitcher like James Shields (my own musings can be seen here), however Doug Melvin almost immediately dismissed any of these notions.

Earlier today, Doug was interviewed on “The Bill Michael’s Show” on 105.7 FM in Milwaukee. When asked about pitchers like Shields or Wisconsin native Jordan Zimmerman, Melvin was pretty clear. Melvin refused to comment on Zimmerman, as he is still employed by the Nationals, but about James Shields Melvin said:

“We feel we have five starters…We haven’t reached out to him at this point.”

Doug also denied that the Brewers attended Johan Santana‘s recent showcase. He admitted that it is difficult for the small-market Brewers to let a pitcher like Gallardo walk without being able to get something significant in return. Most of all, Melvin wanted to make a spot for Jimmy Nelson in the rotation, as the organization is obviously sold on the young pitcher.

Taking a quick glance at Jimmy Nelson‘s 2014 season for the Brewers, the thought of giving a rotation spot to Nelson could be a scary one. On the surface, we see a 2-9 record, 4.93 ERA in 69.1 innings, and 10.6 H/9. He criticized for lacking a third pitch, causing many to doubt his future as a starter. Let’s look a little deeper, however, and let the numbers tell a different story.

Fielding independent pitching, or FIP, is a metric that estimates ERA based on factors that the pitcher can control, like strikeouts, walks, etc. It’s basically saying what “should” happen, taking out things like luck and poor defense. Despite an ERA of 4.93, Jimmy put up a FIP of 3.78, a significant difference of 1.15 runs. According to FIP, Nelson actually should have been the third best starter on the Brewers in 2014, behind Mike Fiers and Matt Garza. Jimmy limited hitters to 0.8 HR/9, behind only reliever Zach Duke and Garza among all Brewers pitchers. His 2.5 BB/9 rate was the same as Yovani’s in 2014, and his strikeout-to-walk ratio was third best among Brewers’ starters. He induced ground balls at a 48.6% clip, following the example of Gallardo and Wily Peralta. Despite taking nine losses, Nelson was actually valued at 0.8 wins above replacement by Fangraphs in 2014.

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Jimmy’s 10.6 H/9 was ballooned by an incredible .344 batting average on balls in play (BABIP, league average for hitters is .300) and 66.6% strand rate. Nelson is a guy who induced grounders nearly half of the time, and he generates a very low 19.7 line drive percentage. If Nelson had pitched enough innings to qualify, he would’ve had the worst BABIP and 6th worst strand rate of all Major League pitchers. Many of the hits he’s giving up are grounders with eyes, ones that just kind of find holes and sneak through. These marks are no doubt due for a tick back to the median; Steamer predicts that Nelson’s numbers level off to a .294 BABIP and 69.6% strand rate in 2015. His projected 8.74 H/9 is almost a full two hits less than this past season, which falls much more in line with a typical sinker specialist.

Jimmy Nelson, contrary to popular belief, also throws a changeup. He doesn’t throw it very often (2.3% of the time in 2014), but he has one in his arsenal. According to Pitch F/X, Nelson throws his change 84.7 MPH on average, a solid drop in velocity from his 93.5 MPH fastball. Pitch F/X pegged his wCH (changeup runs above average, with 0 being league average) at a -0.7 mark, which is pretty darn close to an average MLB changeup. If Nelson can throw his change some more and develop some confidence with it, it should at worst become a league average pitch, if not better. Once Jimmy commits to this pitch, he will have a complete three pitch arsenal, along his fastball and a slider that was rated as the Best Breaking Pitch in the Pacific Coast League in 2014.

We can’t forget that Nelson was the Brewers #1 prospect after 2013, and the 96th best prospect overall according to Baseball America. In AAA last year, he posted video-game like numbers: 10-2 record, 1.46 ERA in 111 innings, giving up only three home runs. He had a 114/32 strikeout-to-walk ratio and would’ve started the PCL All-Star game had he not been called up to replace Marco Estrada in the rotation. According to their midseason rankings, Nelson had jumped up all the to the 38th best prospect in baseball, per Baseball America. This wasn’t by accident, Jimmy Nelson is the real deal.

If you need an example of a Brewers pitcher making a big leap after his first season in the rotation, just jump up a couple spots and you’ll land on Wily Peralta. Wily, a groundball specialist like Nelson, struggled to a 4.37 ERA and 3.58 BB/9 in his first full season in 2013. Once he got that under his belt, however, he plummeted to a 3.53 ERA and cut his walk rate to 2.76 BB/9. His ground ball rate was a tremendous 53.6%, and he does it with a similar arsenal to Jimmy: sinking fastball (albeit a harder one than Nelson’s), slider, and changeup. Peralta threw his change six percent of the time in 2014, just enough to throw hitters off balance. Some believe (myself included) that Peralta will develop into the ace of the Brewers staff. Why is it so hard to fathom that Jimmy Nelson, the Brewers number one pitching prospect, could likely follow the same path?

On the surface, Jimmy Nelson had a rough indoctrination to the Major Leagues. However, when we look a little deeper, we can arguably say that Nelson was the third best starter among the Brewers pitching staff. It’s easy to imagine Jimmy making a big improvement in 2015; heck if he can even just experience league average “luck” he should be markedly better. Doug Melvin traded Gallardo with the specific intent of giving Nelson a starting rotation job, and it’s easy to see why when you take a closer look. You know what you’re getting in Gallardo, but Nelson appears to have a ceiling that isn’t even close to being reached, and he will be better than Yo in 2015.

It’s time to buy into Jimmy Nelson, Brewers’ fans. Now, let’s use that $9 mil to shore up the bullpen and bring in a spot starter for depth, and get this 2015 Championship Season started!