Jeff Niemann's early 2011 season has been quite disappointing thus far. This is not something that has come as a major shock to most that follow the Rays closely. One can simply look back at Jason Collette's post from April 16th and see that Niemann's struggles are not new and have been here since the All-Star break of 2010.
Another thing you will notice from Collette's article is that Niemann's process remained pretty much the same. That still holds true throught last night's game. Niemann's velocity has been right in line with his career norms. Take a look:
His stuff remains steady and constant but the results have been far from steady and constant. Over his first two full seasons, Niemann was a solid starter that was worth 4.1 fWAR and 3.5 rWAR while posting an ERA+ of 100 and keeping his H/9 below 9.0. The 2011 season has been a much different story, with Niemann posting an ERA+ of 54 and being worth -0.1 fWAR and -0.7 rWAR, thanks in large part to a decreased ground ball rate, increased home run rate, and allowing solid contact on a regular basis. The high BABIP allowed is just.
So, what has been the problem? Injury seems to be out of the question due to his ability to retain his velocity on all his pitches. His control has also been steady and his walk rates (in a small sample size) have actually improved. His command, on the other hand, has been off the wall. Niemann, like a lot of Major League pitchers, survives by keeping the ball down. Take a look at his Strike Zone Plot (courtesy of Brooksbaseball.net) from his lone good start on 4/16 when he went 7 innings allowing 3 runs on 8 hits with a 6:1 K:BB rate:
Niemann's strike zone plot is not ideal but you will see a good number of pitches down, down-and-in to left-handed batters, and down-and-away to right handed batters. Not a bad approach and it seemed to work for this game. His only hits allowed were on balls left in the middle of the zone and up in the zone. No big surprise, that is what Major League hitters do to pitches left in those parts of the zone. Now take a look at last night's start:
There really is nothing good to say about this. Omar Vizquel hit a double off the wall. Niemann left just about every pitch in the zone near the middle or up in the zone. There are only five, count them if you do not believe me, pitches in the bottom of the zone. And when Niemann went out of the zone the pitches were not even close. Nimeann's plot from the April 16th game may not be the ideal strike zone plot, but compared to last night's plot it, looks like a masterpiece.
Few pitchers in today's game can succeed when leaving their pitches up in the zone and the sad reality, for Rays fans, is that Jeff Niemann is not one of those pitchers. There has to be something mechanically wrong because his stuff and control remain constant while his command comes and goes, then rarely comes back. A major adjustment needs to take place before he is removed from the rotation but, hey, that may not be a bad thing since his stuff does play up in short stints... But that is for another post and another time.