There is no doubt that April 2015 was a month to forget for the Milwaukee Brewers. After a solid spring training, the team slogged through a franchise worst 5-17 start, already 10.5 games back of the division leading Cardinals. Most of the Brewers’ apparently forgot to bring their bats north from Maryvale; the team ranks 13th in the NL with just 71 runs scored, 14th with a 71 wRC+, and rank dead last with a cumulative -0.4 fWAR as a group. The pitching hasn’t been any better, ranking last in the NL with a 4.78 ERA, 4.87 FIP, and -0.2 fWAR.
There have been a few bright spots during the Brewers awful start, however. Jean Segura has had a nice bounceback campaign so far after a tough season last year, and Adam Lind (our April Player of the Month) has exceeded all expectations after an offseason trade from Toronto. From the pitching aspect, Michael Blazek has been surprisingly good after making the team out of spring training, and has given up just one earned run in 11.0 innings so far this year.
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From where I stand, however, one pitcher stands above the rest after a unexpectedly stellar start to the season. After the offseason trade of Yovani Gallardo, one of the biggest question marks coming into the regular season was how former top prospect Jimmy Nelson would perform when handed the keys to a slot in the Brewers’ starting rotation. His last start aside, however, Nelson has easily been Milwaukee’s best starting pitcher to this point in the season.
The 25 year old out of Alabama made his season debut on April 11th, striking out nine and allowing zero runs against the Pirates to earn the Brewers’ first win this season. He followed that start up with another solid performance against the Pirates a week later, though this time he was charged with the loss after giving up two earned runs in five innings. Nelson’s best game this year, and probably of his young career this far, was easily his April 22nd start against Johnny Cueto and the Cincinnati Reds. Jimmy went 8 innings in that game, giving up just one run and three hits while matching the Reds’ ace pitch for pitch. Nelson took a no-decision that game, and the Brewers ended up losing in the ninth inning that day.
So far on the year, Jimmy has thrown 22.1 innings across four starts. He’s given up 10 earned runs, though seven of those came in his last start, lasting just 2.1 innings in a loss against the Reds. Jimmy’s 4.03 ERA, 3.64 FIP, and 57.1% ground ball rate all rank first among Brewers’ starters. Jimmy is continuing to limit his home runs and walks, while seeing a nice jump in his K% and giving up nearly four hits less per nine innings than he did last year. His 0.4 fWAR ranks him first among pitchers on the team.
Nelson has accomplished all this while dramatically altering his pitching style over the offseason. After being much maligned last year for utilizing just two pitches over 97% of the time, Jimmy worked with Brewers’ famhand Hiram Burgos on adding a curveball to his repetoir, which has been effective enough (1.3 wCU according to Pitch F/X) that he’s begun utilizing it as his secondary pitch. Last season, Nelson’s pitch variation was as follows:
72.7% fastball (93.6 MPH)
25.1% slider (86.7 MPH)
2.3% change up (84.7 MOH)
So far this year, it’s:
60.7% fastball (92.7 MPH)
23.8% curveball (81.2 MPH)
14.9% slider (86.7 MPH)
Jimmy has almost totally abandoned his changeup, throwing it just 0.6% of the time this season, but given the success of his new curveball, this is hardly a concern. As long as Nelson can have an effective off-speed pitch to neutralize hitters, that will be the biggest key to Jimmy’s continued ascendance. Nelson has also made a conscious effort to take a little bit of velocity of his fastball/sinker, which has allowed him to have greater control and spot his pitches much better, while still giving him a couple extra MPH to reach back for if he needs it.
Jimmy Nelson next turn in the rotation will come Sunday against the Cubs, where he will get a chance to bounce back from his rough outing last time out. Do you agree with our pick for April’s “Pitcher of the Month?” Cast your vote below and let us know who you think should be recognized!