You might not have been paying attention–it’s hard to do amongst all the Brewer tears spilling over whatever the fuck they’re bitching about this week–but did you know that Jimmy Nelson has been the third or fourth best pitcher in the NL this year? His 4.8 fWAR rank him third behind Scherzer and Greinke. His 3.05 FIP has him fourth behind Scherzer, Strasburg, and Kershaw. His K/9 is fifth in the NL. His 4.17 K/BB rate is sixth. So yeah, suddenly you’re a little more worried about him pitching in this series, aren’t you?
It certainly is a jump for Nelson, who basically stumbled his way through 2016. He only struck out 7.03 hitters per nine innings last year, or only 17.4% against the 27.2% he’s sending home with no supper this year. He walked over 10% of the hitters he saw, which has dropped to 6.5% this year. And the thing is, Nelson isn’t getting any luck of the draw. His BABIP is .339, 30 points over his career mark. He’s not getting helped by a swollen left-on-base percentage either. This is PURE WEST.
So how has he done it? Well, simply stating he’s throwing more strikes would be a bit too easy, wouldn’t it? The one pitch he’s throwing more consistently in the zone by a big margin is his curve, which has jumped from 36% to 43% in the zone this year. What’s made his year is how he’s played the curve off of his fastball.
Nelson has lowered the use of his sinker to about the same as his fourseam fastball, and upped the usage of his curve. But here’s the difference. Check out where he threw his hard stuff mostly last year and now this year:
Nelson has kept his fastball at the top of the zone, which is where his curve starts. It gives hitters the same look basically until it’s too late, which is why he’s seen an eight percent jump in the whiffs/swing he gets on his curve. Nelson has also lowered his release point on all his pitches, which gives his curve more of a sweep across the zone. He’s also been able to shorten up the break on his slider, which makes it less slurve-y. It’s what’s led to a huge decrease int he amount of contact hitters make outside of the one, while they’re still swinging at the same amount of pitches that are outside the zone. That, my friends, is a good thing. In fact, they’re swinging at more pitches out of the zone, from 26% to 32% this year, thanks to the curve that looks like his fastball and his slider that has a shorter, quicker dive out of the hitting zone.
It’s somewhat well-timed for Nelson, who hits arbitration for the first time this winter. And when your numbers are hanging out with the Scherzers and Kershaws of the world, that’s a pretty hefty thing to bring to the negotiation table. I know I’d like a raise of $7 or $8 million, which is what Nelson would seem to be heading for this winter at least.
All of it makes for a pretty good place to be for the Brewers. Zach Davies and his Kyle Hendricks impression aren’t even due arbitration until after next season, and Chase Anderson is in the same spot as Nelson. That’s a pretty good troika to build from, and two of their top five prospects in Luis Ortiz and/or Brandon Woodruff could join in next year.
Which sadly means the Brewers probably aren’t going anywhere. And neither is their complaining.