A question regarding the Ray's 2012 rotation seems bound to receive a positive response. After all, don't the Rays possess one of the major league's finest rotations? Don't they have two aces in Price and Shields? And don't they have two young and remarkably talented starters in Hellickson and Moore, who recieve Greg Maddux and Nolan Ryan comparisons respectively? And don't they have..... Jeff Niemann? The very mention of Jeff Niemann's name often serves as a prelude to remarks defined by words such as reliability, consistency, and other fancy terms for "average."
Is it possible that the oh-so-average Jeff Niemann, the unheralded back-end of the Ray's rotation, could be a "breakout" candidate?
Flash back to June 2004, and Niemann was a much more recognizable player. When his name was mentioned, it would be alongside the names of players such as the Jered Weaver or Justin Verlander (both 2004 draftees). Baseball America, at the time, said the following:
Niemann’s allure stems from his combination of a strong 6-foot-9, 260-pound frame, power stuff and surprising command for a man his size. At his best, he has a fastball that reaches 97 mph, and he does an excellent job of staying tall in his delivery and using his height to drive the ball down through the strike zone. He also throws a nasty slider that scouts considered the best available in the 2004 draft class, and he added a spike curveball that he picked up from his former roommate and Rice teammate Wade Townsend, the Orioles’ unsigned first-round pick.
In the 2004 draft, Niemann was taken 4th overall and it seemed that the huge Houston native was headed for stardom. So how is it that someone of Niemann's potential and hype is now often overlooked and whose potential is considered limited?
After a successful 2005 minor league season, Jeff Niemann underwent a minor shoulder surgery. In 2006, he was limited to only 77.1 innings. From 2007-2008, he bounced back and averaged 132 innings per season. However, the injuries had taken their toll on Niemann.
In Baseball America's 2008 Ray's Top 10 Prospect list, Jeff Niemann was ranked an uninspiring 7th (although he was behind top prospects such as Longoria, Price, McGee, Davis, Brignac, and Jennings). While the scouting reports complimented Niemann's ability to pound the strike-zone, he no longer possessed a fastball in the mid-90s. His slider, which had been a fabulous weapon when drafted, was also missing. Overall, the reports were becoming less glowing. Baseball America's scouting report, in particular, pointed out his weaknesses:
Niemann is a slow worker who has little deception. He tends to leave pitches up in the strike zone when he stabs in the back of his delivery. He added a splitter last season that he uses as a changeup, but it's still fringy. He still has to prove that he's durable after having arthroscopic elbow surgery in 2003 and a minor shoulder operation in 2006. He pitched through some shoulder pain last August and had a small bone spur removed after the season..... He still has the stuff to be a No. 2 or 3 starter.
So, due to injuries, Niemann's hype and upside had both diminished significantly. In fact, he barely slipped into Baseball America's Top 100 prospects, coming in at #99.
Jeff Niemann's Major League Career
Now that we have seen how Jeff Niemann went from importance to insignificance in terms of hype and upside, we can get a view of what type of player Jeff Niemann currently is.
Jeff Niemann's Stuff
In 2011, Niemann through 4 seam fastballs (23%), 2 seam fastballs (37.9%), sinkers (1.6%), sliders (6.1%), curveballs (23.6%), and changeups (7.6%). In the following chart, the pitches will be divided into fastballs, curveballs, sliders, and split-fingers (changeups) for the sake of simplicity. Using linear weights for pitches, we can determine how well pitchers did when throwing each type of pitch. For a quick explanation, Fangraphs offers the following quote:
In other words, when you see wFB/C, that represents the amount of runs that pitcher saved with their fastball over the course of 100 fastballs thrown.
For more info on Pitch Type Linear Weights, check out this link: http://www.fangraphs.com/library/index.php/pitching/linear-weights/
From this chart, several things can be observed. Jeff Niemann no longer has a good slider. In fact, his slider is now a borderline-awful pitch. He is also able to generate mild success from his fastball and curveball while his changeup (SF) is a below average pitch.
Jeff Niemann's Performance
Finally, the defining point in this post has been reached. Why in the world is this maniac projecting Niemann to break out? When evaluating pitchers, I prefer to look at their strikeout rates and their walk rates, as these are very indicative of future success. Also listed below is xFIP, which is a helpful tool in evaluating pitchers independent of their team's defense (xFIP explanation: http://www.fangraphs.com/library/index.php/pitching/xfip/).
From viewing this chart, we can see that over the course of his three full seasons, Niemann has systematically gotten better. By no means has he dominated; however, his performance each year has progressed. His walks have gone down, his strikeouts have gone up, and his xFIP has gone down. Because of Niemann's progression, I view him as an underrated commodity, a player who has consistently gotten better despite little fanfare or attention.
Having already examined Niemann's pitch values using linear weights, I will now look at swing percentages. Their is a growing train of thought that O-Contact% is a solid way to evaluate a pitchers stuff and thus their ability to strike hitters out. O-Conact% and K% often have a noticeable relationship. James Shield's superb changeup has quite a bit to do with his low (which is good) O-Contact%. However, Niemann has made no progress in this category, so it is reasonableto assume that his stuff or out-pitch hasn't improved.
On a closer examination, there are three very telling stats that hint towards why Jeff Niemann has had more success recently. O-Swing% is the percentage of pitches a batter swings at outside the strike zone. Z-Swing% is the percentage of pitches a batter swings at inside the strike zone. Zone% is the overall percentage of pitches a batter sees inside the strike zone.
As we can see, Jeff Niemann has shown progression in eachof these categories. Batters are swinging at more pitches outside the strike-zone, batters are swinging at less pitches in the zone, and Niemann is throwing less pitches in the zone despite lowering his walk rate every year. All of these clues tell us one thing: Jeff Niemann is progressing as a pitcher. In other words, he is learning "how to pitch." It appears he is setting batters up, getting into favorable counts, and often tricking hitters.
How Has Niemann Gotten Better?
Through all the information gathered, a good theory can be formulated as to why Jeff Niemann has gotten better results in each of the past several years. Niemann hasn't gotten great results off of his stuff (linear weights) and his stuff (going by linear weights, again) hasn't improved each year. In fact, his fastball was a career worst in 2011 and his changeup has gotten worse for two consecutive years. Despite this, Niemann has gotten better results, presumably by fooling batters.
With this in mind, I believe it is safe to conclude that Niemann has learned "how to pitch" better each year, demonstrating better pitchability and command of his pitches.
In conclusion, I don't feel that Niemann is a great candidate to "break out." His stuff is definitely average (except during occasional streaks when his mechanics are perfect) and it seems unlikely that Niemann will ever pitch 200 innings in a year. Despite this, Niemann has shown consistent improvement each year (something Wade Davis hasn't done) and is starting to develop into an excellent pitching artist. His upside may be a bit limited, but Jeff Niemann looks like a keeper and someone who can develop into one of the better pitching artists in the game.
For the record, I do understand that linear weights are results based. However, my point was to demonstrate that Niemann didn't suddenly develop better stuff or get better results on a certain pitch which could then lead to his success.