All spring, we have heard Aaron Boone wax poetic about the depth New York has assembled on the pitching staff. And with the transition from a 60-game season to a full schedule, the Yankees will be leaning on that depth more than ever. Young pitchers will be given a greater share of opportunities to impact the team and prove themselves on the big league stage. One of those youngsters who has the potential to contribute important innings is Nick Nelson.
2020 Stats: 20.2 IP, 4.79 ERA, 5.56 FIP, 4.45 xFIP, 7.84 K/9, 4.79 BB/9, 1.500 WHIP, -0.1fWAR
2021 FanGraphs Depth Chart Projections: 44 IP, 4.68 ERA, 4.80 FIP, 9.68 K/9, 5.36 BB/9, 1.520 WHIP, 0 fWAR
Nelson burst out of the gates pumping gas in his debut season of 2020. His 96-99 mph fastball overpowered hitters and raised eyebrows around the Yankees dugout. The flame-throwing righty is still a raw product with his share of rough edges, but another year of honing and polishing will help him carve out a more permanent role on the major league roster.
Several of Nelson’s projections for the upcoming season stand out. I was surprised to discover that over a quarter of the fly balls he gave up left the yard! Depth Charts sees that regressing closer to MLB average. Depth Charts also projects Nelson’s FIP to come down by nearly a run and his strikeout rate to improve, but also predicts an increase in his walk totals. He will have to sharpen his control as issuing free passes can be a thorn in a reliever’s side.
So far this spring, Nelson has looked sharp. In 6.1 innings across four outings, Nelson has surrendered only five baserunners while striking out six. More impressively, he has avoided the loud contact, inducing weakly topped grounders when hitters do manage to put bat to ball.
These initial outings have not escaped notice. Manager Aaron Boone is certainly a believer in the young righty’s progress.
Aaron Boone says he sees Nick Nelson as potentially having an "immediate" job as a reliever in a Jonathan Loasigia-type role.— Brendan Kuty (@BrendanKutyNJ) March 14, 2021
We all know how electric Nelson’s fastball can be. Its average velocity of 96.3 mph in 2020 placed Nelson in the 90th percentile league-wide. That said, there is ample room for improvement with the heater. Despite its high velocity, Nelson’s fastball sat in the 13th percentile in spin rate. Perhaps some mechanical tweaks in the Gas Station can increase its spin rate, which when paired with his elite active spin will give it better riding life.
Even with his easy velocity, in order for Nelson to be consistently productive in the majors, he will have to refine his secondary offerings, and encouragingly it appears the building blocks are already in place. Nelson’s changeup and slider actually performed better than his fastball last season, with both pitches limiting hitters to a sub-.300 expected wOBA and inducing whiffs in excess of 30 percent.
Nick Nelson, Filthy 88mph Changeup. pic.twitter.com/kbdRWQTVyJ— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) August 2, 2020
The changeup in particular has been Nelson’s most impressive pitch. He flashed glimpses of its potential last season, enough so to catch the eye of the infamous PitchingNinja. Nelson gets an impressive amount of depth on the change, and the roughly 8-10 mph velocity differential off the fastball catches hitters out in front. As you could see in the clip from this spring, these qualities on the changeup turn it into a ground ball machine. Indeed, last season the changeup generated a negative-two degree average launch angle for a whopping 65 percent ground ball rate.
The pitch that doesn’t get nearly as much attention is the slider. Nelson’s slider is actually a sneaky plus pitch. It generated the best whiff and put-away rates of his four offerings, and its 2681 rpm spin rate would have placed him 19th out of 140 pitchers had he thrown it enough in 2020 to qualify.
Nelson’s slider exhibited 12 percent more vertical break and 101 percent more horizontal break that the league average slider in 2020. You can see how he separated himself from the pack of slider throwers, putting himself into top-notch company. Curiously, he only used the pitch about 12 percent of the time. Perhaps as his confidence in the pitch grows, so too will its usage.
All of the pieces are in place for Nick Nelson to become the next high leverage reliever in the Yankees bullpen. He possesses elite fastball velocity and his 55.7 percent ground ball rate is an exciting base upon which to build. The combination of having to navigate the perils of ramping up from the shortened season and Zack Britton’s absence while he recovers from arthroscopic elbow surgery means someone will have to step up and fill valuable innings. I believe Nelson is that guy.