Jeff Niemann, the Tampa Bay Rays fifth starter, took the mound yesterday against the Detroit Tigers and finished with a mediocre line of three runs allowed over five innings allowing four hits and walking two but he did strike out six.
I did not have the luxury of watching the game live but I was able to follow along with the MLB.com Gameday and PitchFX charts from BrooksBaseball.net.
Niemann appeared to have a game plan from the start and it was one that was rewarding him with much success until he abandoned the plan or his arm flamed out and he no longer had control of the game plan or his pitches.
As Tommy Rancel pointed out in his ESPN Florida post yesterday, Niemann is a solid pitcher from pitch one all the way to pitch 75. But once he gets past that 75th pitch he starts to unravel and he becomes completely undone when he goes over 100 pitches. Well, Niemann threw 102 pitches yesterday and the PitchFx backs up the numbers.
Niemann's struggles after 75 pitches were not necessarily a function of facing hitters for the third time but more a function of his loss of command and getting away from an approach that was working early on.
In the first inning we can see that Niemann was working the lower part of the zone and off the plate to the umpires left and right, pitching in almost a "V" shape:
Other than the very first pitch of the game, Niemann stayed out of the middle of the zone and no where near the upper part of the zone. He worked Brennan Boesch with cautious precision and took advantage of a wide zone given by home plate umpire Mark Carlson.
He would work Miggy the same way to end his perfect first inning with only 15 pitches under his belt:
Niemann's approach was working. He did leave one slider near the middle of the plate against Alex Avila but other than that he was cruising along and with only 33 pitches through two innings and not giving the Tigers' hitters virtually nothing to hit in the middle of the zone. Look at his strike zone plot after two innings:
As the game went on, and Niemann's pitch count grew, his game plan became much harder to stick to and he started leaving some pitches up and in the middle of the zone. Take a look at his third inning of work when he threw 22 pitches:
He is getting noticeably closer and closer to the middle of the plate and leaving more pitches up in that one inning than the two previous innings combined. Niemann would escape that inning without any harm other than an escalated pitch count.
Niemann started the fourth inning with 55 pitches and would cruise along with only 14 pitches thrown but he left nearly every single one of the them up and many of them up and in the zone.
Niemann was helped by some solid defense when Matt Joyce gunned down Delmon Young on what looked like a sure fire double off the left field wall.
Now we enter Niemann's disastrous fifth inning in which he needed 32 pitches to get out of and he crossed both the 75 pitch barrier and the 100 pitch barrier. And, like Rancel's chart showed, Niemann struggled pitching after he reached those pitch counts. He could not find the zone and when he did find it he left a few pitches in the wrong areas of the zone. Take a look:
Niemann's command and control were not the only thing to waver as his pitch count grew. Niemann's velocity also started to trend in the wrong direction and he never reached 92 mph after pitch 70:
Niemann had a plan to start the game, a plan that worked against a potent Detroit lineup. But, as history has shown, Niemann could not stick to the game plan as his pitch count grew and the Tigers' hitters took advantage of Niemann's inability to keep a hold of his command, control, and velocity.