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A Big Problem

Last season, Jeff Niemann was one of the better stories for the Rays in the first half of the season. While Wade Davis struggled out of the gate and James Shields had his issues throughout the season, Niemann was a rock in the first half of the season posting excellent results nearly across the board. Then, the second half happened and since the 2010 All-Star game, Niemann has mixed in a trip to the disabled list with what can only be described as some of the worst pitching results this franchise has seen since the days of the Devil. What gives?

While that last statement may seen a bit hyperbolic, it is with good reason. After all, a 5.36 second half FIP does nothing to make the bitter pill of a 7.77 ERA since the break last season taste any better going down. If we look back at starters in franchise history who had ERA's that high with at least 66 innings pitched in a season, we find nobody. The only pitcher that comes close is Jae Weong Seo who had an 8.13 ERA in 52 innings pitched in 2007. The table below shows the results Niemann has posted broken down since before and after the 2010 All-Star break.

BEFORE 2.77 4.40 117 7.2 1.1 2.5 6.5 2.5 .245 84%
SINCE 7.77 5.36 66 10.8 1.9 4.2 7.1 1.7 .326 56%

The only good news since the break is that Niemann is striking out more batters, but the rest of the results are stomach-churning. Yes, a look at an 84% LOB rate and .245 BABIP from before the break certainly screamed regression but Niemann's results skipped right by regression, did not collect $200, and went straight to Kazmiristan. Actually, Kazmiristan is a bit harsh seeing as Scott Kazmir has a 5.01 ERA (5.61 FIP) in the same time frame. As much as we like to joke about what Scott Kazmir has become for the Angels, he does not look that much different from Niemann from a results perspective since mid-July.  Those are the results so far - what has the process been?

April 2010 38% 37% 75% 11% 10% 13% 1% 0% 90.5 4.70 40% 14% 46% 10%
May 2010 30% 35% 65% 12% 16% 6% 1% 0% 91.0 3.89 52% 15% 33% 6%
June 2010 29% 35% 64% 12% 16% 6% 3% 0% 91.8 3.70 40% 17% 43% 16%
July 2010 40% 19% 59% 12% 17% 8% 4% 1% 92.3 4.02 50% 17% 33% 14%
Aug 2010 38% 34% 72% 12% 9% 4% 3% 1% 91.2 5.58 42% 13% 45% 13%
Sept 2010 37% 25% 62% 7% 19% 4% 7% 2% 91.9 4.03 38% 22% 40% 14%
April 2011 39% 27% 66% 17% 12% 3% 3% 0% 91.2 5.09 40% 14% 46% 19%

As far as pitch mix up, nothing is dramatically different than what he did in the past. His velocity has also been consistent and his G/L/F splits have not shown any alarming variance outside of two numbers: his September 2010 LD% and his FB% from August 2010 and so far this season. The August numbers can be discounted because he only made three starts that month as he missed those weeks on the disabled list. That said, his first three starts back off the disabled list were atrocious as he gave up 23 earned runs in just 10 innings of work.

The flyballs have been a problem for him early on so far and the fact that one out of every five fly balls he has allowed has left the ballpark is even more troublesome. Since June of last season, his HR/FB rate has been well above the league average of 10.5% and has shown no signs of improving, even while mainly pitching in a park that helps out home run pitchers. One might look at the high ERA, low LOB%, and high home run rate and blame the problem on that mix, but that is not the case. Of the 13 home runs that Niemann has given up since the All-Star break last season, ten of them have been solo shots. The others were a grand slam to Mike Napoli, a two-run home run to David Ortiz, and a three run home run to the big and mighty slugger Peter Bourjos. BABIP is not even really a problem since he has been at .326 during this ugly stretch which is not that far out of whack with the league average. The real problem is what batters are doing once they reach base.

There have been 60 stolen bases attempted on Niemann in his professional career and 50 of those attempts have been successful ones. Since the start of the 2010 season when Kelly Shoppach and John Jaso assumed regular catching duties  for the club, baserunners are 24 for 27 in their stolen base attempts including a 3 of 4 effort so far this season. Simply due to his size, Niemann is slow to the plate and couple that with just average throwing arms from Jaso and Shoppach, and base stealers like their chances when they get on base. Getting from 1st base to second base makes a difference when looking at run production, as we know from the Run Expectancy Chart from Tom Tango.

OUTS Runner @ 1st Runner @ 2B Improvement
0 0.941 1.170 24%
1 0.562 0.721 28%
2 0.245 0.348 42%

By moving a runner up from first base to second base with zero outs, the run expectancy situation improves by 24% and that amount is nearly doubled when that runner does the same thing with two outs. This is because that runner has a very small chance of scoring from first base with two outs because it would involve either a series of events or an extra base hit to do so. Chris Young had these same issues as a member of the Padres organization, but he also had the luxury of pitching in Petco Park which helped control his home run rate. Niemann does not enjoy that luxury so he has to find a way to make it tougher on base stealers so they are not as comfortable taking the extra base. Last season, 87 stolen base attempts were made against the five main starters from last season and Niemann accounted for 26% of those by himself. 

Niemann is out of options so he cannot be sent down to AAA to work on any issues so there are three options on the table: continue to let him work through his troubles in the rotation, let him do so from the bullpen, or find a dead arm as the Yankees did with Phil Hughes. Niemann ended 2010 on a down note and thus far has stayed there in 2011 with little signs of encouragement. His HR/FB rate should come down and with that, he should strand a few more runners, but this run of poor production is mostly of his own doing rather than any kind of attack from the luck dragons or clogged eyelids.