All told, fun start two nights for Jeff Niemann. At some point right before Jason Bartlett's throwing error the thought crossed my mind. "What in the hell am I actually going to do if this happens?" Of course, the wheels came off shortly thereafter and everyone went from "Wow, Jeff Niemann is the bees knees," to "OH DEAR GOD PULL HIM." Fun times.
If nothing else, at least Niemann is consistent. Each of his starts has lasted into the fifth inning, with one extending through six. He’s recorded three strikeouts in each, and gotten 7, 9, and 7 gorundballs and 2, 5, and 2 line drives. There’s no real pattern though, although the numbers are fun to look at. Niemann has allowed a homerun in each, and thrown 44, 34, and 36 balls.
Niemann’s FIP and tRA are pretty ugly. Blame the homeruns, walks, and lack of strikeouts. For a guy with a strikeout rate over 8 (per nine) during his minor league career, it’s hard to believe he’s averaging 4.86 in the majors. Even last year his strikeout rate was closer to 8. Nobody is swinging and missing on NIemann’s pitches – well okay, about 5% of the pitches he’s thrown have been whiffs, but that’s not very good for anyone in the majors.
The velocity on his fastball isn’t quite what it was years ago, when he would sit in the mid-90s, nowadays it’s more like 90-92. And that’s fine. Many pitchers have succeeded with average fastball velocities. The problem is the movement on his pitches.
Look at Randy Johnson (Yes, I know, comparing anyone to Randy Johnson is asinine. This is purely for height purposes.) his fastball sits right around where Niemann’s does today. Both see between 9 and 10 inches of vertical movement, but Johnson’s fastball breaks towards lefties nearly 9 inches. Johnson’s a lefty, so the pitch is creating a cutting action inwards. Niemann on the other hand, only gets about 3.5 inches worth of break inward to righties. Major league average is six for righties, 6.5 for lefties.
So Niemann’s fastball is average in velocity, below average in left/right movement, and average in up/down movement. That’s only a problem because he uses his fastball 70% of the time. Now, it’s possible Niemann’s fastball breaks later than normal or something of that degree, but the numbers aren’t showing it. The pitch Niemann relies on more than anything else is average.
Niemann’s breaking pitch of choice is his curveball, which is less of a ‘sweeping’ curve and more of a 12-6 curve. You would assume, from such a high vertical plane, that the pitch would get some ridiculous drop. Unfortunately, that’s really not the case. League average horizontal movement is 5.3 inches with a -5.4 vertical drop. Niemann’s curve moves towards lefties 2.9 inches and drops -5.1 inches. The drop is there, the movement is not. If you need a direct comparison, look at Zach Duke. Duke’s curve breaks 3.8 horizontally and 7 down.
Niemann’s change and slider are barely used, which is a shame. His slider shows some potential to be above average with a four inch horizontal break (compared to 2.4 league average) and 1.7 hvertical break (2.2 league average). Maybe that’s just small sample sizes playing with the numbers, but that pitch would seem to be more effective than Niemann’s curve. Actually, I wonder how Niemann’s performances would change if he just used his slider a tad bit more and his fastball a bit less.
Another problem here is that Niemann really doesn’t have a pitch to use against lefties outside of his fastball. Don Wakamatsu loaded the top of his lineup with lefties for that very reason. Sure, he can try and pound down and away with his breaking pitches, but they won’t be as effective, despite what the numbers say thus far this year. In the minors Niemann’s rate stats were far worse against lefties (especially in the walks and homeruns case) and it’s easy to see why. Not that it’s unusual for lefties to be better against right-handed pitching, but look at the Mariners start versus lefties. Zero change-ups, tons of fastballs, a slider, and a curve.
I don’t know how many starts Niemann has left, but at least he’s giving us a ton of things to talk about.