September 6, 2011; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Rays starting pitcher Jeff Niemann (34) throws a pitch in the first inning against the Texas Rangers at Tropicana Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-US PRESSWIRE

RCG 2012 Season Preview: Jeff Niemann


The Rays’ fifth (and maybe sixth) spots in their rotation are still very much up in the air. After discussing a prediction for how Wade Davis would do if given a Rays rotation spot in 2012, today we’ll talk about Jeff Niemann.

Jeff Niemann was about as streaky in anyone in the major leagues in 2011. He went 1-4 as he posted a 5.74 ERA with just a 4.9 K/9, a 2.0 BB/9, and a 1.4 HR/9 in 6 starts and 31.1 IP to begin the year. That strikeout, walk, and homer rates amounted to a horrific 6.49 FIP, making Niemann almost lucky to go down with a back injury that sidelined him until late June. But once he came back, he was dominant, going 7-0 with a 2.15 ERA, an 8.2 K/9, a 2.1 BB/9, and a 0.8 HR/9 (3.35 FIP) in 67 IP, peaking in a game I attended on August 16th at Fenway Park when he tossed a complete game versus the Boston Red Sox, striking out 10 while allowing 2 runs on 3 hits. But after that game, he went just just 3-3 with a 6.08 ERA in his final 7 starts of the season, posting a 6.6 K/9, a 3.4 BB/9, and a execrable 1.7 HR/9 in 37 IP. All that amounted to a 5.34 FIP. On the season, Niemann went 11-7 with a 4.06 ERA, 105 strikeouts (7.0 K/9), 37 walks (2.5 BB/9), and 18 homers allowed (1.2 HR/9) in 23 starts, including the one complete game, and 135.1 IP. His FIP came in at 4.13, and he was the rare Rays pitcher who failed to out-perform his xFIP, which came in at 3.73. His SIERA was a nice 3.79 mark as well as Niemann posted a good 46.0% groundball percentage. Niemann’s xFIP, SIERA, and groundball percentage were all career-bests. Niemann had a nice year overall, but considering the fluctuation in his performance over those three different parts of the year, we’re best off looking at his Pitch F/X data if we want to predict how he will do in 2012. We’ll use the Pitch P/X Data from Brooks Baseball and display it using one of my Pitch F/X graphs.

(If you haven’t seen one of these graphs yet, please see this post.)

Similar to Davis, Niemann’s fastball was dreadful, hitting just the low-90′s and being almost straight as a needle. But Niemann compensated for that by throwing that pitch just 29% of the time and actually using a softer sinker as his primary fastball. Niemann’s sinker featured solid sinking action and movement away from right-handed batters. Brooks tells us that the pitch forced over twice as many groundballs as flyballs, not an outstanding ratio, but good enough. Since it didn’t feature much velocity or sink, Niemann’s fastball wasn’t a put-away pitch for him, but he was able to locate it better than any of his other pitches, throwing it for a strike over two-thirds of the time, and get some groundballs out of it.

Niemann’s best pitch on the season was his curveball, which he threw with substantial downward break along with movement in towards a righty batter. The pitch’s outstanding 1 to 7 break helped generate swings and misses in addition to called strikes as hitters were often befuddled by its movement. Even when hitters did make contact, the pitch’s downward movement forced them very often to hit the ball on the ground, as the pitch forced a 2.76 groundball to flyball ratio. But it was the kind of pitch that hitters could sit on because its movement was so completely different from his fastball, and that occasionally burned Niemann.

That’s where the slider comes into play. The slider was basically a harder version of his curveball with half as much break. But instead of the intended effect, which would be to make Niemann’s curveball more effective and also provide Niemann with another thing for hitters to think about, hitters destroyed Niemann’s slider and it basically made his entire arsenal worse for multiple reasons. The speed differential between his sinker and slider was much less than between the sinker and fastball, so even when a hitter was messed up by the change of pace, the pitch was slow enough that the hitter could recover if he was fooled initially (we’re talking about like a hundredth of a second here) but not fast enough that it could get by a hitter if he recognized it in time. Keep in mind the hitters have at least a general idea of how different pitchers’ pitches move- only the really dynamic pitches consistently fool hitters. Niemann’s slider was not a dynamic pitch because it was caught in between an offshoot of his fastball and curveball. It didn’t have enough of a speed differential with his fastball and it gave hitters a break when they would have swung and missed at the curveball, but because the slider had less movement, they were able to connect, and when they did, they hit the ball hard as Niemann allowed line drives and flyballs to the outfield off his slider more than off of any other pitch. Another major problem was that Niemann released his slider around the area horizontally that he released his fastball, giving hitters a heads-up when he started his curveball farther away horizontally from a right-handed batter (think of it that he released the ball with arm slightly closer to first base). (A subtlety of this graph is that it shows the release point of Niemann’s pitches- when you look carefully, you can see that the lines are not from the same origin.) Even though Niemann’s curveball was still a nice pitch, the slider ended up having the polar opposite of its intended effect and made his curveball worse. Luckily Niemann realized this and threw the pitch less and less as the season wore on.

A nice pitch that Niemann was able to mix in was his changeup. It never really mixed well with his fastball, but it was a nice contrast with his sinker, coming in at just under 8 MPH softer with additional sinking action. The changeup actually had the highest swing and miss rate of any of Niemann’s pitches for that reason. It did have its share of problems. Niemann started the pitch farther away from a right-handed batter horizontally than any of his other pitches, and that made hitters occasionally able to distinguish it more easily. Hitters hit nearly as many groundballs as flyballs off of the pitch as Niemann’s change posted just a 1.19 groundball to flyball ratio, and they also managed to lay off the pitch quite a bit as it was a strike 57% of the time, the lowest of all of Niemann’s pitches (yes, he has great control). Nevertheless, the amount of swings and misses Niemann generated with his changeup made it worth all the side-effects.

In 2012, Niemann is presumably going to improve his arsenal by throwing his sinker and changeup more in lieu of his slider. That should in theory allow him to generate a fe more swings and misses and force more groundballs and less home runs. If he can do that, he should be able to put up more consistent numbers. But his overall numbers may actually be slightly worse. Niemann was so effective from June to mid-August because he scrapped his slider and brought out his curveball in earnest, but eventually the league adjusted to the pitch. Every team in the American League knows how Niemann’s pitches move now, and his best pitch, his curveball, sticks out like a sore thumb with his slider out of the equation. That doesn’t mean Niemann won’t be a solid pitcher in 2011, but especially in the AL East, he just doesn’t have to pure stuff to be more than a 5th starter.

I would predict Niemann’s homer rate to come down significantly in 2011 with his slider gone, but for him to lose a little bit in terms of K/9 and BB/9. If Jeff Niemann is given a rotation spot in a five-man Rays rotation in 2012, I would project him to stay healthy for 185 innings and strike out 134 (6.5 K/9), walk 58 (2.8 BB/9), and allow 21 home runs (1.0 HR/9) in 30 starts. That amounts to a 4.30 FIP, and say a 4.10 ERA when we factor in the Rays defense. Niemann doesn’t have very much upside, but he’s a consistent major league starter.

Trading Davis or Niemann has a lot more to do with Davis than Niemann. Niemann, if he can stay healthy, is a sure bet to post an ERA between 3.90 and 4.40. Davis has a lot more variability. If the Rays are confident in Davis, Niemann is expendable, and there are teams out there who want a cheap (Niemann will make 2.75 million dollars in 2012), dependable starter. I have a feeling that the Rays will go for upside and keep Davis while trading Niemann a week or two into spring training when it becomes apparent that Davis is heading for a breakout. But wherever he ends up, Niemann should an unfailing back of a rotation option and put up another solid season in 2012.

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