When it comes to Jimmy Nelson in 2016, the story wasn’t good: his walks and homeruns were up and his strikeouts were down. By the end of the season, if he was your probable starter it was probable you’d sigh. After his final outing – one where he gave up five earned and walked four over just 5 and ⅓ innings – he said “I know that [pitching coach Derek Johnson] and I are doing the right things.” So why, then, were the results saying something so different?
If we look at his pitch selection, we might have an answer pretty quickly. Whether sinker or four-seamer, Nelson threw a fastball 71% of the time. That’s a lot of fastballs, up more than 10% from 2015 and certainly enough to support that he may have become predictable to hitters. Only JA Happ, Aaron Sanchez, Bartolo Colon, and Robbie Ray threw heaters more frequently in 2016. However, each had a FIP at least a full run lower and walked between .65 and 2.82 less batters per nine. This all adds up to tell us pitch selection alone doesn’t tell the whole story on Nelson.
As it turns out, the spin rate on each of his pitches was up last year from 2015. That’s desirable for Nelson’s breaking pitches because it means they were moving more on hitters. Look no further than his slider to see just how much that means. His BB:K ratio for it was a miniscule .06. But he threw it only 17.4% of the time he was out there.
As for Nelson’s fastballs, however, the increased spin rate was bad news. Early on, he was pounding the edges of the zone with them and setting up his off-speed stuff. But as the season progressed and the movement continued, his fastballs went from the edges to the heart of the plate. And remember, he threw one more than 70% of the time. Hitters could wait around for a pitch to rip until they got one. Between his sinker and four-seamer, his BB:K ratio was 2.2. They made sequencing a nightmare.
In 2016, Nelson really may have put in all the right work. It just might not have been applied in the optimal way. His full repertoire is established. Finding how to better control the newfound spin when changing speeds could serve him and the Brewers in a big way in 2017. Even if the defense behind him isn’t markedly better and his strikeout rate doesn’t bounce back, hitters wouldn’t be able to just sit on the fastball.
Likewise, a small adjustment with where he sets up on the mound could let Nelson retain his current spin rates while regaining control of the zone. His pitches would be moving the same but coming from and ending at a different location.
Nelson has bounced back after a bad year at every level. While his numbers last year don’t look good, his spin rate and track record for adjustments are legitimate reasons to look for a better performance in 2017.