July 13, 2012; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Rays starting pitcher Jeff Niemann (34) in the dugout against the Boston Red Sox at Tropicana Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Why Did the Attempted Conversion of Rays' Jeff Niemann to Relief Turn Out So Disastrous?

It happened so fast we didn’t even know what had hit us. Jeff Niemann was heading to the Rays’ bullpen after losing the Rays’ 5th starter competition, but before he appeared in a single game, he hit the DL with shoulder soreness, and then suddenly he had to undergo season-ending surgery on his shoulder. How could all of that possibly happen in just a week’s time?

It’s natural to associate Niemann’s DL stint and subsequent surgery with the shoulder problem that ended his 2012 season in early September and his velocity loss for most of spring training. It’s impossible to say that neither of those previous issues were related to the surgery. However, Niemann mentioned something else as the direct cause that sent him under the knife: his preparation to move to the bullpen.

“In the bullpen you have to be ready every day, and my attempts to be able to throw a ball and be loose and warm and have the body ready to go pitch had no recovery time. It went downhill so fast,” he said. “It was the first time we experienced any backtracking at all during this time.”

How did heading to the bullpen cause Niemann to get injured? Doesn’t moving to the bullpen let pitchers pitch in shorter stints and throw many fewer innings, which puts less stress on their arms and helps them stay healthy? Niemann mentioned that having “no recovery time” was a magic factor and that’s something that we don’t really take into account. As I discussed elsewhere, when starters take the ball, the adrenaline starts pumping and except in the most severe situations, whatever pain they’re feeling fades away. Even if their arm hurts a lot after starting, they have another four or five days to recover before going again. In relief, however, the rest disappears and pitchers have to head to the mound when their arm isn’t feeling as well. Why would a pitcher possibly take the ball when their arm is hurting? Especially for a starter heading into relief, they would probably tell themselves “I’m only heading out for an inning or two and my arm is just a little sore. I can take this.” Maybe Niemann did that one too many times, and it cost him dearly.

It seems pretty clear that Niemann pushed himself too hard trying to convert to relief and that made the pain in his shoulder too much to bear. However, that was another major force working against Niemann: his height. Niemann is 6’9″, ranking among the tallest players in the history of baseball. And players with his height have done well playing the relief role he was trying to go into. Jeff Niemann was going to play the same type of role that Wade Davis and Andy Sonnanstine have played for the Rays in recent years, heading to relief but being more than one-inning players. Using the Baseball-Reference Play Index, I did a search for players who threw a minimum of 50 innings pitched, averaged 1.25 innings per relief appearance, and made two or less starts. I further restricted the search to players in their 4th season or later, getting rid of young starting pitchers beginning their career in the bullpen because that’s not what we’re looking for, and also restricting the age from 25 years old to 35 for much of the same purpose and to try to get rid of seasons from washed up starting pitchers barely hanging on. Within that search, I looked for players who are 6’7″ or above- and note that 6’7 is pretty regular baseball height. Looking at this graphic from Flip Flop Fly Ball, there were 14 players 6’7″ or above on MLB active rosters on June 11th of last season, and there were surely several others on MLB 40-man rosters. All in all, there were 393 seasons since 1990 from players that fit my guidelines. Just 8 of them came from players 6’7″ or above, and five of those were from two players. Just one such season has occurred since 1995: Dustin Nippert in 2010. There are quite a few tall pitchers in baseball. But for whatever reason, they can’t seem to deliver this type of long relief season.

For tall pitchers, it’s hard enough for them to maintain their mechanics, as Rays fans have seen firsthand with Niemann’s inconsistency of the years and as fans saw for years with Randy Johnson before everything finally clicked for him in his 6th season. When their mechanics are off, not only does their control and command suffer, but also it sets them up for injury with their arm not moving in the right way. And out of the bullpen in shorter stints, pitchers who had previously been starters have to be reaching back for something extra on their pitches, and that could cause them to overthrow and risk getting hurt. Combining the extra effort and lack of rest involved with the conversion from starting to relieving with his height made Niemann a particularly likely candidate for injury. If Niemann returns to the bullpen after surgery, maybe he’ll figure out a way to pace himself better of avoid this fate again. This time, though, it was a collision of all the wrong variables at precisely the right time, and the results could not have been worse as Niemann will miss of 2012 and is left with his entire future in question.

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11 Comments on Why Did the Attempted Conversion of Rays’ Jeff Niemann to Relief Turn Out So Disastrous?

  1. david egbert says:

    This is the last we will see of Niemann in a Rays uniform. They will never go to arrbitration with him after his injury history.

    • Robbie_Knopf says:

      I would tend to agree, but would you completely rule out bringing back at say $2.4MM (a 20% paycut from this year) as a back-of-the-rotation type who could generate some trade value? I don’t think it’s a complete certainty.

  2. david egbert says:

    with Archer, Colome and Ordorizzi in the wings, I would spend $2.4 elsewhere.

    • Robbie_Knopf says:

      I probably agree with you, but let me play Devil’s Advocate. David Price gets traded, yielding no big league-ready pitchers, and after Hernandez leaves as a free agent, your remaining starters are Matt Moore, Jeremy Hellickson, Alex Cobb, and the three you mentioned. Do the Rays really want a rotation with 27 year old Hellickson as the elder statesman? What if Colome proves to be more of a bullpen guy and somebody gets injured? Isn’t worth it to bring Niemann to camp and see how he looks before either giving him a rotation spot or trading him away for a team thinking $2.5MM is a real bargain?

  3. david egbert says:

    In a perfect world, yes. However, we really need position players. This plan of turning lemons into lemonade with guys like Roberts, Scott, Loney, Johnson and Molina just is not working. I’d rather use our trade bait(Price?) and treasure to obtain good position players and go with the young pitching talent that we have.

    • Robbie_Knopf says:

      Why couldn’t you do both? That’s the major question. Is $2.5MM so significant for the Rays that they should cut ties with Niemann even when he could potentially help them out in 2014?

  4. david egbert says:

    As my granddaughter would say, “this is fun”. I think it’s about what you get for your money. Right now in Niemann, Johnson and Roberts, we are paying $9.0 million for a sore armed pitcher and two mediocre position players. If you put a good portion of that money into one decent position player, your team is greatly improve

    • Robbie_Knopf says:

      Agreed- nice discussion, David. Johnson is on a 1-year deal and Roberts could very well be non-tendered as well following the season. The difference with Niemann is that if he comes back healthy there’s a pretty good chance the Rays could trade him after spring training or early in the season, pay him basically nothing and get a prospect in return for him. If Niemann is healthy following the season, the Rays would certainly be gambling bringing him back, but it might be worth it. Also, the Rays might say non-tender Niemann but then re-sign him for say only $1.5MM. If the worst-case scenario then became burning that little money and best-case became either getting a solid major league starting pitcher or a decent prospect in a trade, would you say that’s worthwhile?

      For my personal opinion, I just don’t believe he can stay healthy and that he’s not worth committing any money to especially given the rotation depth that the Rays have. But I do think the case can be made for the other side and that we can only be maybe 80% certain that Jeff Niemann has pitched his final game for the Tampa Bay Rays.

  5. david egbert says:

    I agree. At $1.5. it would be a good gamble. Thanks for playing “GM for a day”!

  6. david egbert says:

    Not at all. I would be flattered.

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