The Curious Case of Jeff Niemann
Jeff Niemann has faced very high expectations since being the fourth overall pick in the 2004, but has yet to reach the potential that scouts once thought he had. With a 6’9” frame, the Texas righty is an intimidating force on the mound, but has not been able to translate his dominant stature into dominant results. His first full season in the majors, 2009, was fairly successful for a rookie. He deservedly received Rookie of the Year votes, as he finished the year with 180.2 innings, a 3.94 ERA, 1.35 WHIP and a 13-6 record. However, his strikeout rate in 2009 (6.23) was a significant drop from his minor league averages (8.83).
In 2010 his strikeout rate increased slightly, as well as his walk rate. He had a 12-8 record and finished the year with a 4.39 ERA and 1.26 WHIP. Niemann did see improvement in 2011, lowering his ERA to 4.06 and improving his K/BB (2.84) by 32% since the previous season; albeit while missing time from May to June with a back injury. There is no concrete explanation as to why Niemann has never lived up to his first round potential, as he has settled into a fifth starter that can maintain an ERA around 4.00.
What puzzles and frustrates scouts and fans with Niemann is his inconsistency. In the past, Niemann has put stretches together that are a reminder of his potential, only to follow it up with a string of rough outings. His 2011 season was full of these stretches from the beginning. Through his first six starts last year, before he went to the disabled list, he had a 5.74 ERA. His June was split between minor league rehab starts and two starts with the Rays, where he had a combined 3.63 ERA. Niemann seemed to have figured it out in July, giving up only 27 hits and 4 earned runs over 34 innings (1.06 ERA and 1.06 WHIP). However, he slowly tapered off the rest of the year, with a 3.35 ERA in August and a 6.94 ERA in the final month.
This erratic monthly trend has been a pattern for Niemann over his career with the Rays. His career ERAs from April to September are as followed: 4.34, 3.33, 3.47, 2.82, 4.92, 5.79. His FIPs follow the same pattern, showing that these tendencies have not been flukes. Niemann has put some very nice months together in the middle of his seasons, but it is the bookend months that end up doing him in.
One possible explanation for Niemann’s inconsistency could be his height. In the past, the taller a pitcher is the more challenging it is for him to repeat his delivery. This is a problem that has plagued current Mets’ pitcher Chris Young; Young is 6’10”, and his monthly trends are equally irregular to Niemann’s. By looking at Niemann’s release point over the past four seasons (thanks to Fangraphs), it is clear that he has become increasingly inconsistent with his delivery. Although his peripherals have improved since 2009, his release point has varied more horizontally, especially in 2011. This could be a potential reason for his inconsistency last year and something to watch for in the future.
Another intriguing trend over the past couple of years is Niemann’s fastball velocity. His average fastball velocity has dropped 0.4-0.6 MPH each season since 2009. Although his fastball has only averaged 91.3 MPH over his four year career, it certainly jumps at hitters quicker than most because of its high release point. Niemann has also thrown a two-seam fastball more often since 2010, and this season he has introduced a cutter to his repertoire that he is throwing 8.2% of the time. It is a small sample size, but Niemann has been getting more swings and misses this season than any other, and his K/9 through three games is 9.39.
One thing to watch with Jeff Niemann for 2012 is whether he sees continue success in the middle months of the season, and whether he can stay consistent through the end of the season. The Rays are only relying on him as their fifth starter, but consistency at the back end of the rotation is still important. The 29 year old is arbitration eligible for the first time in 2012 and will only get pricier moving forward. We will have to see in 2012 whether he will be able to prove that he can be closer to the pitcher that he was drafted to be.