Jimmy Nelson’s New Weapon

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Yesterday, Jimmy Nelson made his season debut for the Milwaukee Brewers, and led the team to their first victory of the year, a 6-0 defeat of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Nelson is entering his first full season in the Brewers’ big league rotation, inserted into the starting five after longtime starter Yovani Gallardo was dealt during the winter. After dominating in AAA last season, Nelson was called up to the majors and delivered mixed bottom-line results. Though his peripheral stats painted a much better picture for Jimmy, he was much maligned for basically operating as a two-pitch pitcher, throwing his fastball/slider combination over 97% of the time last year.

In our interview with Jimmy from back in January, he told me that in addition to working in his changeup more often this season, Nelson was working on a fourth pitch. During Spring Training, we found out this pitch was a curveball, using a grip that Hiram Burgos taught him when they were minor league teammates. Pitchers experiment with different pitches all the time, especially in spring, so it wasn’t altogether remarkable that Nelson would tinker with a new pitch. Though Nelson struggled throughout most of spring training, he remained confident in himself and the process he was going through to prepare for the season.

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During his start last night, Jimmy was a sensation. His final line was: 7.0 innings pitched, 2 hits, two walks, nine strikeouts, and most importantly, zero earned runs while picking up the win. Jimmy‘s FIP for the night was a stellar 1.61, and he induced ground balls at a 72.7% rate. The most remarkable part of the night, however, was how impressive Nelson’s curveball was.

According to BrooksBaseball.net, Jimmy threw 88 pitches in his start against the Pirates, and 24 of them were curveballs. His “Uncle Charlie” averaged 81.9 MPH, and had an average vertical break of -8.0 inches. Nelson threw 15 curves to lefties, and nine to right handed hitters. Jimmy induced six swings at his curve, producing five whiffs and a ground ball out. Four batters struck out against Nelson’s curveball, three of them lefties. Jimmy was able to spot his curveball quite precisely, keeping the pitch in the lower third of the zone or below on 15 pitches. He was confident enough in his curve to throw it as the first pitch to 12 batters, including seven first pitch strikes with his curveball.

Jimmy Nelson’s curveball usage and locations from last night, courtesy of BrooksBaseball.net.

The Brewers’ backstop, Jonathan Lucroy, offered a glowing review of Nelson’s new pitch. The Pirates were likewise impressed with their opponent, with opposing manager Clint Hurdle calling his curveball “a separator” after the game.

If Nelson can continue showing excellent command of his new curveball while continuing to improve his changeup (which he only threw once last night), it could give him a legitimate four pitch arsenal with which he can attack batters. Jimmy has been projected as someone who could settle in as a mid-rotation option, but given the development of a new, potentially plus offering, Nelson could push his ceiling to that of a number two starter. With young Wily Peralta entrenched in the rotation and coming off a breakthrough 2014 campaign, the Brewers could have themselves a tremendous one-two punch at the top of their rotation for the next several years to come. It’s been a long time since the Brewers have been able to consistently produce quality starting pitchers through their farm system, but with young, promising arms like Peralta, Nelson, Tyler Thornburg, and Taylor Jungmann at or near the major league level, it appears the Brewers’ might be turning the corner.

Jimmy Nelson will likely make his next start on this coming Friday night, when the Brewers square off once again against the Pittsburgh Pirates. This game will be at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, however, so we will have to see if Nelson can continue his early-season success now that he will be away from the familiar Miller Park. With another loss today, the Brewers have fallen to 1-5, and are currently sitting in the cellar of the NL Central, three games behind the Cincinnati Reds.

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