Jeff Niemann is starting for the Rays today, his first start since the May 14th game in which he fractured a bone in his right leg after getting hit by a line drive. Niemann will play an interesting role for the Rays in September, not quite joining the rotation, but making spot starts here and there as needed and also working in relief. The better he pitches, the more starts Niemann will get. The obvious question is how will he pitch? In order to get some idea of that, let’s look at how Niemann has performed coming off injuries in the past. We’ll talk about what the injury was and how he did in his next 5 starts afterwards (because Niemann won’t get more than 5 in September no matter what).
On 4/8/10, Niemann left his first start of the season after just 1.1 innings after getting hit in a shoulder by a batted ball. Niemann made his next scheduled to start and went 2-0 with a 2.31 ERA in his next 5 starts, striking out 24 while walking 11 in 35 innings.
On 7/12/10, Niemann was day-to-day with a lower back strain. Niemann received an extra day of rest before his next start and in his next 4 starts, Niemann went 3-1 but with a 4.81 ERA, striking out 18 while walking 11 in 24.1 innings, allowing 5 home runs.
On 8/4/10 (the day after start number 4 after his lower back strain), Niemann went on the 15-day DL with a shoulder strain. In his next 5 starts after returning, Niemann went 0-4 with a 14.43 ERA, striking out 19 while walking 15 in 19.1 innings, allowing 5 home runs.
And on 5/5/12, Niemann went on the DL with a mid back strain. In his next 5 starts after returning, Niemann went 3-0 with a 2.08 ERA, striking out 26 while walking 9 in 40.1 IP as he worked as part of the Rays’ 6-man rotation. Between July 2nd (the 3rd start after returning) and August 17th, Niemann went 6-0 with a 1.71 ERA in 8 starts.
His entire career, Jeff Niemann’s performance has fluctuated as much as anyone in baseball because it has bee very hard for him at 6’9″ to find a consistent release point. We see that after returning from the DL, Niemann could either have his release point or not, and in all likelihood he is either going to be dominant or hit pretty hard. The good news is that Niemann did not suffer an arm injury. After an arm injury, you would really have to worry about Niemann’s release point, and we saw that he got plastered in 2010 after returning from a shoulder strain. Niemann finished off 2010 on a good note following that poor 5 start run, but there’s no time for regression to the mean here. It’s 5 starts (or less if he fails to perform) and out. Niemann isn’t going to flame out like he did after the shoulder strain, but the two most likely scenarios are either like he performed following the lower back strain, losing his control and struggling to a high-4.00′s ERA, or 2011, where everything clicks immediately and Niemann dominates to the tune of a sub-3.00 ERA.
Do rehab assignments mean anything? For all of Niemann’s 2010 injuries, he didn’t pitch a single rehab game. In 2011, he got 3 rehab starts, posting a 2.70 ERA with 10 strikeouts versus 3 walks in 13.1 IP. In 2012, Niemann has gotten 4 rehab starts, posting a 6.91 ERA but 10 strikeouts versus 4 walks in 14.1 IP. The ERAs couldn’t be more different, but the strikeout to walk ratios are very similar. The bad news: almost everything else is different. According to Minor League Central, in 2011, Niemann forced a 47.5% groundball rate and an outstanding 10.0% line drive rate. In 2012, he managed just a 40.0% groundball rate and a horrific 23.6% line drive rate. The sample size is so small that it could be nothing. But it looks like Niemann’s 2011 breakthrough after returning from injury started in his rehab appearances as his command was excellent. In 2012, that was not the case.
How will Niemann perform the rest of the season? I hate to say it, but my money is on a sub-par performance. I would guess that Niemann make 4 starts and a relief appearance, posting a 4.50 ERA, 17 strikeouts, 9 walks, and 4 home runs allowed in 28 innings pitched. Niemann won’t sabotage the Rays’ hopes by performing like that, but he won’t be much of a help either. Whether the Rays succeed or fail in 2012 is going to have a lot more to do with their other five starting pitchers, David Price, James Shields, Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore, and Alex Cobb, the bullpen, and especially how the offense performs. If they don’t all live up to their ends of the bargain, Niemann won’t do nearly enough to help the team stay afloat. Keep the expectations low for Jeff Niemann this September. Maybe- hopefully- he exceeds expectations, but don’t expect very much.