Jeff Niemann is an Ever-changing Syrup | The Process Report

Jeff Niemann is an Ever-changing Syrup

By R.J. Anderson //

Truthfully, I have trouble writing about Jeff Niemann. A chunk of the hesitance involves his pitching personality. Once you get beyond the tallness, there’s just not much else to be interested in about Niemann’s game. He works primarily off his fastball that sits around 91 and can jump up the velocity chart, but the pitch does not get many whiffs, even with the added perceived velocity from Niemann’s length. Not finding a particularly overly interesting doesn’t mean one can’t give credit where it is due.

Niemann earned the nickname “The Big Nyquil” last season because of the exorbitant time between pitches that has since dwindled in severity. Another aspect of Niemann’s game that he’s altered is his warm-up regime. A few starts into the 2009 season he completely reconstructed how he went about prepping for games. As it turns out, Niemann was throwing too much, leaving him noticeably gassed around the 95-100 pitches mark. In the six starts made in 2009 before changing, Niemann lasted beyond six innings once – or a little under 20% — in the 24 starts thereafter he lasted six-plus innings 15 times – or 63% of the time. This season he has went six-plus in 19 of 22 starts – including his injury shortened season opener. Niemann went at least six innings in every start from April 13 through July 6 before going only five against the Cleveland Indians, derailing his attempt at three straight months without a short outing.

In Niemann’s first two major league seasons, he’s yet to miss a start, a glaring contrast from his minor league career where he made fewer than 25 combined starts in his first two pro seasons and made 25 and 24 in 2007 and 2008 respectively. In hindsight, one has to wonder whether those adjustments are what separate unhealthy Niemann from healthy Niemann as loads of pitching injury experts seem to agree that throwing tired is when injuries occur. Either way, full credit to Niemann for taking the coaching and showing a willingness to adapt, even when his previous method found him as a first round draft pick and one of the more successful college starters in recent history.

The other reason I dislike writing about Niemann is his win-loss record and earned run average. His peripherals do not match with his excellent surface metrics. He is 23-9 with a 3.58 ERA and the team is a combined 35-17 in his starts. Just glancing at those metrics would suggest he is an elite starter and the best on the team, but he’s not and he isn’t. To write about a seemingly over performing player includes being a downer and pointing out that he is playing over his head. When you have to do it constantly, like with Niemann, it just makes you look … well, salty at best, and downright hateful at worst.

The good news in Niemann’s case is that the depth metrics suggest he has improved too. Niemann is striking out 17.7% of batters faced (opposed to 16.3% last season) while his walk and extra base hit percentages have remained static. His home run rates have increased from “well under league average) to “well over” and reality is somewhere in between.

One other thing worth pointing out is Niemann’s ability to strand runners. His groundball rate is higher this season – almost the entire difference seems cut from his line drive rate – and his double play rates are absurdly high once again; last season he turned double play situations into double plays 14% of the time, that’s up to 16% this season. League average is 11%. I don’t know how much of that is a skill – i.e. repeatable – and how much is luck – after all, I assume guys who get 40%+ groundballs are more likely to get double plays than others. Same as his once again high infield pop rate. When you have runners on the best case scenarios (depending in the base-out situation of course) is a fieldable groundball, an infield fly, or a strikeout; Niemann’s got those three areas covered. Factor in the defense behind him and that’s why he’s got a great ERA.

I’m still not sure he’s too interesting, but maybe he’s closer to being Dayquil.

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