There have been plenty of times where we have been critical of Jeff Niemann; this will not be one of those times. Despite throwing 70% fastballs, Niemann completed what was easily his best start and possibly the Rays best start of the season last night. Using only 100 pitches, he finished off the Royals and earned his first complete game shutout allowing just two hits and one walk while striking out a career high nine batters. For Niemann we've seen a tremendous change in pitch efficiency without much change in pitch selection. It seems somewhere along the way he found out how to control his fastball and that is a good thing.
Last night Niemann threw 69% of his pitches for strikes. This is a big difference from the 57% strikes he averaged over his first four starts. In fact over his last four starts Niemann has averaged 68% strikes per start and has 21 strikeouts to just three walks. Pitching efficiently is the key for him and it looks like he's figured it out at least over the last four starts.
As I mentioned earlier, the pitch selection remains pretty stable for Niemann. He's still fastball first and threw 70 fastballs last night averaging 92 MPH and topping out around 94. R.J. has done numerous posts on Niemann's fastball vs. curveball and last night the curveball was there around 21% of the time. This is up from the 8.8% he's averaged all season. Niemann got away with two pitches over 90% of the time last night, but it was against the Royals. I would suspect that working just two pitches over a long period of time will not be a good thing for Niemann, but last night it was certainly good enough.
Starting with James Shields on Friday, the Rays have gotten solid starting pitching the whole way through this turn in the rotation. Evan Longoria and other members of the team said that this homestand was a big one and the team needed to get going. It seems that the message has gotten through to the starting pitchers and James Shields has a chance to make it a 5-1 homestand this afternoon. As each pitcher tries to one up the other in the rotation, let's hope Shields tries to out do the ‘Big Nyquil's" performance.