Earlier in the week Jeff Niemann “beat” Wade Davis in the battle for the fifth spot in the Tampa Bay Rays rotation. Although their production would likely be similar over the course of a full season, outside factors such as health and ease of transition to the bullpen tipped the scale in favor of Niemann. Both the organization and Davis say consider the Lake Wales native as a starter; however, in the interim we will see if he can re-gain velocity and effectiveness in shorter – conceivably more frequent – appearances.
As for Niemann, the Rays should have a good feel for what they are going to receive from the fourth-year starter. In just over 500 major-league innings, he has earned a 4.16 ERA with a decent strikeout-to-walk ratio (2.27). He will give up home runs on occasion (1.12 career HR/9); a byproduct of inconsistency with keeping the ball in the lower-half of the strike zone.
While Niemann is very much a “what you see is what you get” pitcher, he has some attributes – maybe some out of the ordinary – that could produce very favorable results if they continue in 2012.
In terms of controllable metrics, Niemann has improved upon his strikeout rate in each of the past three seasons while cutting the percentage of walks he has allowed. After striking out a below-average percentage batters as a rookie, he struck out 18.4% of batters last season; just under the league average. At the same time, he has lowered his percentage of walks from around 8% in 2009, down to 6.5% in 2011. In regards to home runs, seven of the 18 bombs he surrendered came off of two-seam fastballs located in the upper-half of the strike zone. A continued effort to keep the ball moving on a downward plane will not completely absolve him of the issue, but will certainly help.
When looking at things like batted-ball data, Niemann has also steadily improved his groundball rate in each of his three big-league seasons. Formally a neutral pitcher, the 29-year-old produced a career-high 46% groundball rate in 2011. In addition to groundballs, he has seen his rate of infield flyballs (IFFB%) increase as well.
Amongst American League starters with at least 450 innings pitched since 2009, Niemann’s infield fly rate ranks second behind Los Angeles Angels’ ace Jered Weaver. Over the past few months, I have documented Jeremy Hellickson’s success with the infield fly and his similarity to Weaver. In those articles, I also mentioned that a high IFFB% usually belongs to a flyball pitcher. Niemann is a rare bird in this regard. In fact, he is the only pitcher in the top five of IFBB% with a groundball rate of more than 39%.
The stability of infield fly rates is still up for debate. Meanwhile, Niemann’s ability to change speeds with his curveball and off-speed pitch could factor in him getting in front of bats, generating more pop-ups. In each of the past three seasons he has decreased the use of his fastball while increasing the number of curveballs thrown and maintaining a steady diet of the off-speed stuff. His changeup/splitter has also shown the ability to create whiffs and should be a go-to-pitch when a punchout is needed.
Throughout the competition for the fifth spot, I maintained that Davis is the better long-term option for the rotation; however, in the short-term, Niemann is probably the safer bet to produce better results. With improving control rates, and perhaps the abnormal ability to produce a high number of groundballs and infield flyballs in unison, the former first-round pick could be on the verge of putting together his best season to date. Provided he stays healthy, of course.