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Among the plethora of prospects that have made or will make their debut in 2014, Jimmy Nelson, the 25-year-old big right-handed prospect for the Milwaukee Brewers, is one who is flying a little more under the radar (technically, he made his debut in 2013). The names Gregory Polanco, Oscar Taveras, and Andrew Heaney have garnered much of the publicity, and rightly so, but Jimmy Nelson deserves a bit of spotlight, too. Even if he finds himself just a bit outside.
Nelson is a 6-foot-5 righty who reminds me of Mat Latos a lot in stature when he’s standing on the mound. Though the notion of “big, burly pitcher” is nice to think of in hopes of avoiding physical injury, the easiest way to push that out of mind is to be reminded of Latos’ injury history.
Originally drafted out of high school, Nelson opted to go to college and made his way to the University of Alabama to pitch for the Crimson Tide. He spent three years at Alabama, the first two used mostly as a reliever and the third as a starter. Without going into unnecessary detail, this much Nelson accomplished: He improved his walk rate and strikeout rate each season he was there. He improved his 1.28 SO/BB rate in his first year to a 2.97 SO/BB rate in his final year. As with any prospect, improvement is important, and Nelson showed exactly that. All this led him to being drafted in the second round of the 2010 draft by the Brewers.
Where Nelson can differ himself from some pitchers who might struggle to get a call to the Majors is that Nelson has fully developed his repertoire. Along with a running fastball that can sit mid-90s (but so far with the Brewers has been about 93), Nelson has a two-seam fastball that has a bit more movement than his normal four-seam. To complement the two fastballs that can run in on the hands of right-handed hitters, Nelson has a sharp slider that sits around 84 MPH. It’s a pitch that he trusts against any hitter; taken from a FanGraphs piece by Mike Newman from April 2013:
Against a Chattanooga Lookouts roster headlined by Yasiel Puig, Nelson didn’t flinch. For five innings, he attacked hitters with a power fastball/slider mix that resulted in eight strikeouts and no walks. In one inning, Nelson tried to overwhelm Puig – a right-handed hitter – with multiple sliders. The result was another K for Nelson.
Any pitcher in the Minors who has the confidence to reel off slider after slider against Yasiel Puig even though he has a heavy, sinking fastball tells me that fantasy baseball owners should have confidence in this kid to mix his pitches as he (or his catcher) deems appropriate.
His fourth pitch is a change-up that Nelson is still developing. That is certainly a pitch that could be a lot of help – a running (sinking, two-seam, whatever) fastball that can be complemented by a change-up with similar arm action/movement could produce a lot of wild swings. Whether it gets to the point where he’s confident in it, we’ll see. It’s clear he doesn’t have a ton of confidence in it yet, as in 251 MLB pitches he’s thrown between the end of last year and one start this year, he’s thrown four change-ups. If that pitch comes around for him, look out.
Like most prospects, there is a fly in the ointment here.
There have been control issues at almost every level for Nelson. Here’s what he’s done at each level since he started at Alabama:
- Three years at Alabama (190 IP): 3.88 BB/9
- One year at A-ball (146 IP): 4.01 BB/9
- Half a season of High-A (81 IP): 2.78 BB/9
- Parts of two seasons at Double-A (46 IP): 7.24 BB/9
- Most of one year at Triple-A (111 IP): 2.59 BB/9
For his 601 innings mentioned above, he has allowed 254 walks, which is a total of 3.8 BB/9. In the Minors alone, that number is 3.77. So far in his brief total of 16 innings at the MLB level, he has allowed eight walks against.
While walks are not the complete end of the world, it’s not a good sign. Assuming that Nelson’s walk rate levels out and he maintains the 3.8 BB/9 he’s shown at every level, here is something to chew on:
Twenty-seven pitchers from 2010-2013 pitched at least 160 innings in a given season and had a walk rate of 3.8 BB/9 or higher. Twenty of those 27 pitchers had an ERA of 3.61 or higher.
Given what we know about guys with high walk rates now, I would be very leery of Nelson if he doesn’t start showing improvement. His best case would be turning into Gio Gonzalez (good!), his medium case would be CJ Wilson (ok?) and his worst case would be Edinson Volquez (OH NO).
Nelson was called up to replace Marco Estrada in the rotation and it seems like he’ll stay there for the foreseeable future. For those in NL-Only leagues, he’s probably gone, but check anyway.
The quandary is what to do in mixed leagues. Large leagues, sure, take a flier. In something the size of 12-team leagues, I don’t know if he’s worth it this year. Sure, he’s shown improvement this year in Triple-A with a 2.6 BB/9 rate, which is acceptable. He also had a 2.8 BB/9 rate in High-A in 2012 and then walked over seven batters per nine innings at Double-A to finish the year.
There doesn’t seem like there is much for consistency and reliability here. Sure, he could strike out eight or nine guys per nine innings. He’s also a decent bet to walk at least four guys per nine, too. Until he gets his control, well, under control, there’s not a lot to be excited about here. Can he outrun the regression that will hit if he maintains his current rates for the rest of the season? Sure. Am I willing to bet my WHIP and ERA on it in my roto leagues? Absolutely not.
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