Waiting On an Ace: Jimmy Nelson

I love pitching prospects. Not that I can back this statement up, but I believe pitchers make a more immediate impact on a fantasy roster than hitters. So, each year I stack my “Watch List” with young pitchers that might get called up in September, have a good shot of getting called up in June and potential breakout sleepers. Four years ago, one such player was Jimmy Nelson. How could a man that stands 6-6 at 245 lbs. not be on the radar? I watched with eager anticipation at all those strikeouts. That was four years ago and not much has changed. Both the Brewers and I seem to be in the same boat — waiting on Jimmy Nelson.

At one point, Nelson was the number one prospect in the Brewers’ organization. His fastball and slider were scouted as plus pitches and as such, Nelson was touted as a middle-of-the-order pitcher with potential to move up with the development of a third pitch. He was drafted in the 2nd round, 64th overall and is still just 26 years old. His aforementioned size gives him the frame to tax his arm with 200-plus innings each year. Plainly put, Nelson has the pedigree to be a stud and clearly the Brewers thought so too. Why then are we waiting three years into Nelson’s MLB career?

About 16 months ago, Mike Newman wrote about Nelson’s rising stock. That was prior to a year when Nelson had somewhat of a breakout campaign, going 11-13 with a 4.11 ERA and a 19.7 K%. If you recall he seemed to put things together in July to the point of striking out 32 in 33 IP with a sizzling 1.61 ERA. That’s when everyone jumped on board and expected big things in my fantasy league (10-team mix league, five keepers, deep rosters, 12 years running). July ended, however, and Nelson fizzled with the fading temperatures in 2015. His stock was mixed heading into this year (ADP 211, Yahoo!). It’s a new year now and the temps are starting to rise again. Will Nelson resurface as the potential ace he showed last July?

Last year Jimmy Nelson introduced a curveball to his arsenal, and it was good. The story on Nelson is that he always lacked confidence in his third pitch, the changeup. In the early going Nelson rarely threw that pitch. In order to get lefties out and develop into an ace Nelson needed a third pitch he was not only confident in but that could develop into a plus pitch. Maybe the curve was just what the doctor ordered. His pitch distribution looks like this.

In 2015, Nelson offered his newly-found curve 21% of the time while keeping his plus slider around (17%). 2016 seems to be a different story to this point. Nelson is throwing his fastball much more often and his off-speed pitches less, basically ditching the change all together. This has had two results: hitters are swinging less and making more contact. Z-contact% is creeping up to scary levels (93%).

Worse, so far, hitters are being patient with Nelson. It seems when Nelson goes outside the zone, hitters are laying off.

To summarize, hitters are swinging less at pitches, both inside and outside the zone, and making more contact, both inside and outside the zone, than ever before against Nelson. This is not a good sign. Dating back to Nelson’s early days, he has displayed control issues. What happens when hitters become patient against a pitcher with historic control issues? His walk rate increases.

Jimmy Nelson is progressing in the wrong direction. Hitters have adjusted to his curve and slider, they are being more patient, and they are making more contact. While Nelson’s K% has not dropped dramatically, his BB% is trending in the wrong direction. As a result his K-BB% is at an all-time high (in both the major and minor leagues).

I have something to confess. Prior to researching Jimmy Nelson I attempted to trade him in my fantasy league. To multiple teams. Multiple times. Here were my selling points: Pedigree, development of a third pitch and progression. So far this year Nelson has a 3.46 ERA, a 3-1 record, and he is still striking guys out at 17.9%. On the surface it looks like he is pitching to more contact and inducing weaker contact when he does; his 24.7% soft-contact rate is up from 19.2% last year.

One could be optimistic about this. I am not, however. His ERA is being supported by a .225 BABIP and a crazy 90% strand rate. Worse, pitching to contact is not a good strategy when fly-ball percentage is also trending in the wrong direction; up to 35% from 29% last year.

To wrap this lengthy post up I have several concerns with Jimmy Nelson. He’s always been known for having control issues and it seems he has not improved that yet. He’s developed a third pitch but is refusing to throw his plus slider and curveball more often. He’s inducing more contact but that contact is in the air. I am not searching for a way to “fix” Jimmy Nelson. His velocity seems to be consistent, perhaps just a tick down. His mechanics seem fine. There are no injuries to report. Rather, this post is about waiting on the ace that the Brewers thought they had. If that ace is going to emerge, Nelson is going to have trust in his slider and curve as he did in July of 2015. He’s going to have to find a way to induce more swings outside the zone. As it stands now, he is living dangerously inside the zone and will eventually run into major problems when those stranded runners come around to score as his BABIP rises. As deep as our fantasy league is, he still might be able to be moved. More than likely, however, he’ll remain what he has been — a middle- to back-end-of-the-rotation arm both in fantasy and real baseball.

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