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Yankees Potential Free Agent Target: Jimmy Nelson

Shoulder surgery has lowered the price of 2017-breakout Jimmy Nelson.

Cincinnati Reds v Milwaukee Brewers Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

The New York Yankees know how to find hitters. They acquire them, hand over the uniform, and they breakout. Luke Voit, Gio Urshela, and Mike Tauchman are recent examples, with Didi Gregorius and Aaron Hicks marking the beginning of a trend during the second half of this decade.

On the pitching side, the organization is trying to create a similar system to churn out pitchers as quickly as they do hitters. Changes to the coaching staff look to do just that, as Sam Briend and Matt Blake have been inserted to help the process. After their search for a top of the rotation starting pitcher, the Yankees could look into adding a lower-tier starting pitcher into their depth. If so, Jimmy Nelson should be considered.

Nelson’s breakout season came in 2017 pitching to a 10.21 K/9, 2.46 BB/9, 50.3 ground ball percentage, and 3.49 ERA. After lining a single to the left field wall in Wrigley Field on September 8th of that season, Nelson rounded first but returned making a head first slide. The result was season-ending right shoulder surgery once the MRI showed a partially torn labrum and a strained rotator cuff. Returning from injury this season he pitched 41.1 innings in the minors, together with another 22.0 frames in the majors between starts and relief appearances. Within that sample size in the majors, Nelson was able to show his slider and curveball can still get the job done, although locating proved to be an issue.

Jimmy Nelson’s Slider Production

Season Results BA SLG Whiff%
Season Results BA SLG Whiff%
2015 557 0.150 0.231 38.5
2016 507 0.157 0.299 30.7
2017 456 0.248 0.333 34.9
2019 111 0.188 0.251 48.8

Nelson’s slider has arguably been his best pitch since debuting as a three-pitch pitcher in 2014. He incorporated a curveball the following season, further expanding his arsenal. These two pitches have been able to miss bats, and when put in play hitters don’t find much success, consistently generating an xBA under .250 and xSLG around .300 according to Statcast. In 2019, even with a drop in velocity on both these secondary pitches, Nelson was able to keep that trend consistent. Having to work around a 6.95 BB/9 rate showed his command is well behind his velocity post-surgery, but it’s encouraging to know his two main weapons against hitters are already producing.

Jimmy Nelson against left-handed hitters

Season TBF K/9 BB/9 WHIP
Season TBF K/9 BB/9 WHIP
2015 334 7.63 4.13 1.68
2016 377 6.38 5.13 1.50
2017 354 11.70 3.39 1.32
2019 52 11.32 7.84 2.23

What sparked his breakout in 2017 was the addition of a new fastball approach. In 2016 his K/9 rate against left-handed hitters was 6.38 but jumped to 11.70 in 2017, as Nelson raised his fourseam fastball usage to about 50% when he was ahead of hitters or in two strike counts, per BrooksBaseball. In 2015 he threw fourseam fastballs about 30% of the time against left-handed hitters in these counts, during 2016 about 40%, showing a 10% increase each season leading to his breakout. Overall, Nelson depended less on his sinker and slider —both pitches left-handed hitters were putting in play more often compared to his fourseam— looking to strikeout left-handed hitters.

Once he found a way to put down left-handed hitters more frequently, his 2017 season was bound to produce better results, considering this usually marks a right-handed pitcher’s biggest challenge. But left-handed hitters account for less than half of the hitters Nelson will face. This is where another fastball helped his breakout season, being the sinking fastball against right handed-hitters.

Nelson’s Sinker Against right-handed hitters

Season Count BIP% GB% GB/BIP ISO
Season Count BIP% GB% GB/BIP ISO
2015 529 26.09 17.01 65.19% 0.031
2016 715 24.62 15.38 62.46% 0.141
2017 586 25.09 17.06 67.99% 0.036
2019 67 14.93 4.48 30.01% 0.300

By 2017 his sinking fastball became his most trusted pitch against right-handed hitters when behind in the count, throwing the sinker 68% of the time in those cases. It dug itself into the ground averaging a negative two launch angle according to Statcast. Even if hitters did find grass, the ball wouldn’t travel too far as shown by the generated ISO marks. Combined with his slider, Nelson found a way to produce a career best 5.41 K/BB ratio against right handed hitters in 2017 leading to a 2.73 FIP and 3.09 xFIP against them.

The approach against left-handed hitters has been usage of both fastballs with a mix of curveballs, while right-handed hitters tend to see sinking fastballs and sliders. However, during 2019 Nelson made three starts from June 5th through the 20th not being able to execute his plan, generating a 9.75 ERA across 12.0 innings. The return wasn’t productive and the Brewers decided to see what he might be able to do coming out of the bullpen.

In 2017 Nelson threw 1,685 fastballs at an average velocity of 93.9 mph, during his three June starts in 2019 he tossed 117 fastballs for a median of 91.8 mph, marking about a two mile per hour difference. Once he was moved to the bullpen his average fastball velocity spiked back to 93.7 mph over 95 pitches according to Statcast. Not only did the velocity rise, but his production did too. As a reliever, he pitched to a 3.60 ERA over 10.0 innings, generating 11.70 K/9, but a miserable 6.30 BB/9 and 33.3 groundball percentage. His curveball spiked from a 31.83% called ball percentage in 2017 to 48.78% in 2019, while the sinker went from 30.98% to 41.44%. The fourseam and slider each saw about a six percent rise.

Overall, Nelson still has the ability to create productive whiff rates with his slider and curveball, but needs to regain his command for hitters to offer. His sinker averaged over three inches of extra vertical drop compared to the rest of the league from 2015-2017, then averaged 0.5 inches in 2019 which impacted his groundball percentage. Nelson will surely prove to be a project because command, pitch movement, and velocity need to be rediscovered after the shoulder surgery. But if the Yankees could get him back on the trajectory he was on, they might come out with a pitcher who could provide great support to the rotation.