Jeff Niemann is a Garfoose | The Process Report

Jeff Niemann is a Garfoose

“I thought we should make up this creature who had specials traits that were unique — but special in a cool way.” Dirk Hayhurst on explaining his creation of the Garfoose.

On Tuesday, there was yet another twitter-driven discussion among Bay Area-ers about a topic that goes beyond the traditional metrics. Graduate of our intro to sabermetrics course – JB Long of Bright House Sports Network got the party started with this tweet

Could Jeff Niemann be most overlooked SP in MLB? Dude started 6-0 & 10-3 before DL in 2010. Even worked back into form by year’s end. #Rays

From there, the discussion shifted to former Ray Jason Hammel, then to current whipping boy James Shields, and ultimately ended back with Niemann. Looking at the simplest metric – wins – Niemann has racked up the second highest total of any Tampa Bay pitcher over the past two years (25). This may inflate Niemann’s value among casual fans who don’t mind the sub-standard strikeout rate along with the average walk and home run rates. Since joining the rotation full-time in 2009, his 4.16 ERA is not great, but looks better than his 4.33 FIP and 4.44 xFIP.

The point of this piece is not to attack Niemann. Though my opinion of Niemann might not be as high as others, I do think he is a capable third or fourth starter. Watching his methodical movement on the mound is not exciting, but as long as he pitches well, it doesn’t matter.

Though his large frame and birthplace invoke thoughts of blazing fastballs and gaudy strikeouts, Niemann possesses neither. His fastball tops out in the mid-90s, but is generally around 91-92 MPH. As mentioned above, his career strikeout rate of 6.55 per nine is nothing spectacular. While Niemann’s overall averageness has earned him the moniker “The Big Nyquil”, the right-hander has piqued the interest of this process reporter.

Without strikeouts, Niemann has found a way to get outs on balls in play without getting into much trouble. Studies have shown that inducing infield flyballs (IFFB) – the batted ball type that is converted into the most outs – is a skill for some pitchers. Over the past two years, Niemann owns the third highest IFFB rate in the American League among starting pitchers (min. 300 innings). He is one of only five with a rate above 12 percent (12.3). Not only does it seem that Niemann possess the useful IFFB trait, but he is the only member of the top five with a groundball rate above 40 percent.

On the strength of his two-seam and split-fingered fastballs, Niemann increased his groundball rate to 44.4 percent last season. To see the groundball-friendly Niemann leading the Rays’ rotation in double-play conversions is no surprise. Fourteen percent of his opportunities wound up killing twins, whereas the league average is 11 percent.

What Niemann lacks in the punch-out department, he make up for with infield flies, groundballs, and double plays. It’s not the sexiest route to success, but it works. With pedestrian peripheral stats, Niemann could be one of those pitchers who’s ERA perennially outperforms his defensive independent metrics. In some instances, that might include a decent amount of good fortune; however, because of his Garfoose-like skills that may not be the case with Niemann.

Although, I do not necessarily agree with Long’s assessment of Niemann being overlooked or overshadowed, he is worth a deeper – or at least different – look as we track his progress in 2011.

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