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Jimmy Nelson - What's Brewing After a Year-Long Absence?

If you’re an advocate to abolish pitchers hitting in the National League, you might use Jimmy Nelson as a prime example. During a breakout season in 2017, Nelson slid into first base during his September 8 start, jamming his throwing shoulder. Diagnosed with a rotator cuff strain and partial anterior labrum tear, Nelson was put on the operating table to undergo surgery. It was a devastating blow to a Milwaukee Brewers team trying to win the NL Central division, which they ultimately lost, but it was a more significant blow to Nelson’s career.

Still recovering from surgery, Nelson was held out of the entire 2018 campaign as the team proceeded with caution with their prized hurler. For a player entering his prime years, this kind of injury derailment is not only frustrating, but it’s a big cease in momentum that Nelson was going to carry in as a 28-year-old for a contending team.

Posting a career year in 2017, the right-hander took massive steps forward in many areas to solidify himself as an ace for the Brewers. He ended the season going 12-6 with a 3.49 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, and 199 strikeouts in 175.1 innings. Not only were these stellar numbers compared to his previous two full seasons, but there was also plenty under the surface that suggested Nelson got robbed of more than an abrupt end to his season. Almost a forgotten name in early fantasy drafts, let’s rewind to 2017 and remind ourselves of the impressive season that Nelson delivered to see if he can bring value in 2019.

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Strikeout Surge

Entering his third full season, Nelson honed in on his craft and saw far superior results than ever before. Utilizing a four-pitch arsenal, he features the four-seam, sinker, slider and curve. He shattered his previous season’s work as a strikeout arm with his 27.3% K%, which was nearly 10% higher than his 2016 total. These stats might make you raise an eyebrow, so we must dig in to determine how this happened.

Nelson changed up his approach a little bit in 2017. Instead of relying on the sinker to get the majority of his outs, he went to the curveball more. He threw the sinker 46.8% of the time in 2016, dialing it down to a 34.9% mark in 2017, while his curveball percentage went up over 7% to 19.9%. He used this pitch to be effective against left-handers and it worked. Lefties only hit .183 off this pitch; his strikeout numbers against LHB skyrocketed from 16.2% to a whopping 30.2%.

A weapon Nelson carried over from 2016 was his slider, which was his best pitch regarding swing-and-miss ability. Generating a 34.2% Whiff/Swing, he used this more frequently against right-handers, especially as his punch-out machine, going to it 35% of the time when he was ahead in the count.

Nelson also increased his velocity on his four-seamer by half a percent up to 94.6 MPH. Not a dramatic increase but enough to get his WHIFF% to jump from 9.75% to 13.53%. This swing-and-miss ability likely went up due to keeping hitters off-balance with his two breaking pitches. Holding the slider and curve in his back pocket, it was easier for him to blow a fastball by a batter when they thought a breaking ball was coming. Having a complete arsenal like Nelson did in 2017 is a terrific recipe for strikeout success and it's imperative that he keeps up this method of attack for his impending fantasy value.

 

Batted Ball Beast

The Brewers ace had an unusually high BABIP in 2017. In 2016, his mark was .299, a league average number, but it shot up to an odd .340 despite having his lowest Barrel% (4.0%) and exit velocity (85.3%) of his career. His BABIP put him as the second-highest number next to the soft-throwing Clayton Richard. Nelson has always been a groundball machine, but in 2017 he stepped it up a notch. Utilizing his sinker to perfection, his career 1.67 GB/FB seen improvement in 2017 with a 1.84 mark, good enough for a top-seven finish. While it is true that groundball pitchers tend to have a higher BABIP than fly ball pitchers, the .340 hit against him was still way too high.

Given his top-five soft contact rate (22.3%), it was extremely unlucky that he gave up as many hits as he did two years ago. Statcast also agreed, putting his expected batting average at .236, over 20 points lower than his batting average against (.257). Going hand-in-hand with his inflated BAA was his ERA. Nelson had an xFIP of 3.15 and a FIP of 3.05, much lower than his 3.49 ERA. These low peripheral numbers are likely attributed to the Brewers defensive woes that season. The Brew Crew had the second-most errors in 2017 with only 22 defensive runs saved. It would have been interesting to see what Nelson could have done with Milwaukee’s much-improved defense in 2018, which had a mammoth 116 DRS.

Nelson’s soft contact and groundball tendencies also helped him improve on keeping the ball in the ballpark. Pitching in hitter-friendly Miller Park is no easy task, but he actually fared better at home in this regard. His 0.57 HR/9 was nearly twice as good as his 1.12 road split, and his combined 12.6% HR/FB was a slight improvement on his 14.5% mark in 2016.

 

What Looms In 2019?

After a year and a half since the shoulder procedure, Nelson is on track to be ready for spring training. The good news regarding his shoulder injury was that he hurt himself being a baserunner, not a pitcher. If he had gotten hurt on the mound, it would be much more concerning moving forward. Nelson has had a strong bill of health his entire career, the only other time he’s landed on the disabled list was when he took a line drive off his head in September of 2015.

It’s no guarantee that Nelson will return to his All-Star caliber production in 2017. It would be naive to think that there would be no rust to shake off after more than a full-year absence from the majors. The truth is we don't know what we're going to get out of the now 29-year old. What we do know is that Nelson has had success before and knows what it takes to get both strikeouts and batted ball outs. The most important thing to watch for in spring training is how good his breaking pitches are, as that's the key to his strikeout success and where a lot of his fantasy value will be. An elbow injury would have more of an effect on this ability, but seeing how it's his shoulder recovering, it should be less of an issue.

As of now, it's his rotation spot to lose, but keep in mind the Brewers will likely keep his innings in check. With Brandon Woodruff, Corbin Burnes and Freddy Peralta, Milwaukee has a plethora of alternatives for Nelson in the rotation, so they can afford to take it slow with their former star pitcher. It is foreseeable that he’ll be skipped in the rotation every once in a while to keep him fully healthy, especially if the team is in line for another playoff run. If Nelson can channel his 2017 form, he’ll be a steal at his current ADP of 267 even with limited innings. It’s a low-risk gamble but one that can pay off handsomely in the late rounds of your draft.

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