Back in May, Jeff Niemann went on the Disabled List with back problems and missed more than a month. Since coming back from the DL, Niemann has been better than ever. And with a crowded rotation, the Rays need to decide if Niemann has finally turned the corner, or if he is a classic trade-high candidate this winter.
Here is a look at Niemann’s numbers pre- and post-DL…
The Rays have six big league starting pitchers under contract for 2012, and that doesn’t include Matt Moore, who has dominated triple-A in his short stint there, or Alex Torres, who will have a full year at triple-A under his belt with a 3.00 ERA.
The feeling is that somebody needs to be traded. James Shields‘ name has been tossed around a lot. But in the case of Shields, his status is more about money than ability. And as long as the Rays can fit Shields into the budget, he is still a bargain next season at $7 million. And the Rays love a good bargain.
That brings us back to Niemann. Is this a new Jeff Niemann? Or is he just in the midst of a hot-streak with another injury just waiting to happen? If the latter is more likely, then the Rays will likely look to move Niemann this winter.
But before that happens, let’s examine what might have caused Niemann’s emergence. Here is a look at Neimann’s pitches pre- and post-DL…
A couple of interesting things stand out…
Typically, the four-seam fastball is the faster fastball, while the two-seamer is slower but has more movement. Niemann actually throws his two-seamer harder. As a result, Niemann has gone away from the four-seamer since the DL and is now throwing his two-seamer almost twice as often (43.4%) as he was before the injury (25.2%).
THE BREAKING PITCHES:
This is where we really see the new Jeff Niemann. Prior to the DL, Niemann was throwing his slider (15.0%) and curveball (14.6%) equally often. But since coming off the DL, Niemann has almost eliminated the slider from his arsenal (2.8%) and he is throwing the curveball almost exclusively as his breaking pitch (26.8%).
What is curious about the slider/curve usage is that before the DL, the slider was actually a slightly better pitch. He threw the slider for slightly more strikes (63.9% to 62.9%) and batters were swinging-and-missing (whiff) at the slider 50 percent more often (15.3%) than they did with the curve (10.0%).
THE NEW JEFF NIEMANN:
Before the DL, Jeff Niemann threw two fastballs, a curve and a slider, occasionally mixing in a change-up and a split-fingered fastball. Since the DL, Niemann has become a pitcher that throws two fastballs, but with the two-seamer now his go-to fastball, a curve, and an occasionally change-up. The slider and split-finger pitches have disappeared from his arsenal.
The new formula seems to be working. But there is one unanswered question: why did Niemann keep the curveball and ditch the slider if the slider was a better pitch? It is possible that Jim Hickey recognized that the curveball had a better chance of being a dominant pitch. If so, +1 for the pitching coach.
The other possibility is that the Rays recognized that the slider was either causing Niemann’s back issues, or the slider was causing his arm to tire. Notice that before the DL-stint, Niemann was only averaging 80 pitches per start. Part of that was just because he was getting knocked around. But he did have a couple of good starts pre-DL, and only once did he reach 100 pitches.
It is clear that we have a new Jeff Niemann. A starting pitcher that changed his arsenal and is now a dominating pitcher. But by abandoning the slider, we may also have a new Jeff Niemann that is better suited to stay off the DL.
And if this is indeed a better and healthier Jeff Niemann, the Rays should consider holding on to him for the 2012 season.