The Milwaukee Brewers have had a troubling history since the turn of the 21st century of failing to develop strong pitching from within their system. For every Ben Sheets and Yovani Gallardo the Brewers have come across, there have been countless more guys like Ben Hendrickson, Nick Neugebauer, Mark Rogers, Eric Arnett, and Kyle Heckathorn that struggled with injuries, flamed out in the minors, or failed to perform at the big league level. Other high picks, like Jake Odorizzi, were traded before they could make an impact in Milwaukee; the also Brewers failed to sign 2010 first rounder Dylan Covey.
It seems that the Brewers may have turned a turned a corner in recent years with developing their pitchers, however. Wily Peralta and Mike Fiers both had breakout campaigns in Milwaukee last season; Peralta dropping his ERA by nearly a run while leading the team in innings pitched, and Fiers dominating batters with an ERA of 2.13 and a 76/17 strikeout to walk ratio in 71.2 innings pitched after a mid season call-up. The Brewers have committed to another young pitcher in their rotation this season, moving their longest tenured pitcher in Gallardo to slot their former top-prospect Jimmy Nelson into the rotation. Though Nelson struggled on the surface in his stint in the majors in 2014, he could be the breakout candidate for the Brewers pitching staff this season.
Jimmy went 2-9 last year, starting 12 of his 14 appearances and pitching 69.1 innings. After posting a sparking 1.46 ERA and striking out 114 in 111 innings at AAA last year, Nelson’s 4.93 ERA in the bigs looks very underwhelming. However, things weren’t as bad as they appear for Nelson. His FIP of 3.78 tells us Nelson was the victim of a lot of bad luck. Indeed, Nelson’s 10.6 H/9 was inflated by a ridiculous .344 BABIP, despite inducing grounders 48.6% of the time and limiting line drives to only a 19.7% rate. His strand rate of 66.6% was also nearly seven points lower than league average, and no doubt hurt his inflated ERA. Jimmy posted solid marks of 2.5 BB/9 and 0.8 HR/9, and still managed a 0.8 fWAR despite his losing record.
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History is also on Jimmy Nelson’s side as he goes into this season for the Brewers. Each of the past three seasons, Nelson has dominated a lower level of the minors, only to struggled after a promotion. Each year since 2012, he has seen his ERA rise anywhere from .90 to 3.47 runs and his WHIP jump almost half a point with each promotion. However, the more exposure he has gotten at each successive level in the following year, he has improved:
A+: 2.21 ERA, 1.08 WHIP
AA: 3.91 ERA, 1.54 WHIP
AA: 2.74 ERA, 1.13 WHIP
AAA: 3.67 ERA, 1.49 WHIP
AAA: 1.46 ERA, 0.92 WHIP
MLB: 4.93 ERA, 1.46 WHIP
If the trend can continue, Nelson should be enjoying a breakout campaign for the Brewers in 2014. Nelson told us in January that part of the reason he struggled at times last year was getting away from his minor league game plan once he got called up, which included mixing in his changeup a lot more than the 2.3% he did last season. Nelson has said he is confident in the pitch and will feature it a lot more this season, which should help him mix speeds from his sinking, mid-90s fastball and biting slider that was named the best breaking pitch in the PCL in 2014. Throwing his changeup more often should help Nelson neutralize lefties better and increase his strikeout rates to closer to the 9.6 and 9.2 K/9 we saw from Jimmy in his last two minor league campaigns.
RtB recently projected Nelson for a 4.10 ERA in 29 starts for the Brewers in 2015, but I think this might be selling Jimmy a little bit short. Offense is down around baseball, and the league average ERA last season was around 3.80. I doubt the Brewers would have shipped off the dependable (if uninspiring) Gallardo if they didn’t think Nelson could be close to or better than league average. There is a reason that Jimmy climbed up all the way to the 38th best prospect in baseball (per Baseball America) before his promotion last season, and the Brewers are obviously high on Jimmy Nelson becoming a stalwart in their rotation for the next several years.
Personally, I think Jimmy could finish with somewhere around a 3.70-3.80 ERA for the Brewers next season, which would be a lot more in line with his peripherals from last year. If he can strike out a few more batters and continue to limit his walks and home runs, Nelson should be able to work deep into games and give the Brewers a chance to win each time he is out on the mound. I don’t expect Nelson to become an ace this season, but a jump similar to the one experienced by fellow ground ball specialist Wily Peralta in 2014 could be coming for the soon to be 26 year old righty.
The Brewers are counting on a lot of things to go right in order to challenge for a spot in the postseason this year, but perhaps no one is more important to the success of their pitching staff in 2015 than Jimmy Nelson. Despite uninspiring results in his half season in the rotation last year, Nelson has both the peripherals and track record of success to suggest that a breakout campaign could be coming in the Championship Season of 2015.