Has Milwaukee’s Jimmy become a “Full Nelson” (a case study in DBF)…These days it is Morton’s Pepper, not Morton’s Salt…There still is no shielding Shields…
Point Blank – July 26, 2017
There are a lot of reasons to like Jimmy Nelson. He was a second-round draft pick in 2010 and is quite a physical specimen, standing 6-6 and listed at 250 pounds. That not only gives him plenty of oomph behind his fastball, with is averaging a career-high 94.7 this season, but he is also not just a power guy, with his slider being thrown 15.0 percent of the time, and his curve at 17.7. If you have good velocity, and can command three pitchers, the door is open to MLB success.
Yet Nelson only teased for a few seasons, some occasional flashes of brilliance but inconsistency the dominant theme, and in 2016 he was downright bad, possibly indicating a career arc in the wrong direction. Now 2017 has been much different, not only major performance changes but also some substance as to the why behind them, which means that we should take up at notice. And I have, though a question remains, which I will get to in a moment. First let’s look at the dramatic improvements in his bottom line:
Nelson 2016 2017
ERA 4.62 3.43
FIP 5.12 3.23
xFIP 4.91 3.23
K/9 7.0 9.9
BB/9 4.3 2.2
SWS% 7.4 11.5
Now for the logic behind that surge. Nelson was a student of kinesiology at the University of Alabama, and has dabbled in that science since professional baseball called. So after giving that science some thought after his struggles of last season, it was in tweaking his mechanics that he not only found a little more fastball velocity, but also much more command of his breaking pitches (hence the dramatic improvement in BB/9), working with his motion to get more out of his back leg.
That is the kind of information we are looking for consistently in the daily search, a fundamental that lends credence to the numbers, and there has been plenty of value to be found with Nelson off of that disappointing 2016 that etched in the minds of many in the marketplace – tonight will mark the 13th time in 21 starts that he has been an underdog.
You can sense that there may be a “but…” on the way, and there is. One of the key handicapping elements that I do not see discussed often enough across the MLB season is scheduling, in this case DBF, or “Difficulty of Batters Faced” for pitchers. It is not an easy statistic to find, and over most campaigns it does tend to level off because there are so many games played. But until the leveling off takes place it is a most useful tool.
This is where there remains a caution in allowing the paint dry on the Nelson numbers without adjustment. There are 105 pitchers that have worked at least 80 innings so far and Nelson rates #104 in DBF, only Antonio Senzatela worse (and you were warned about him here earlier in the week, though for different reasons).
The average OPS across the 2017 diamonds has been .751, but for the batters Nelson has faced it is only .720, and that does indeed impact the bottom line favorably for him. Want perspective? The Royals are #26 in OPS at .723 and the Phillies #27 at .713, and the average Nelson opponent is right between them.
Tonight the test is much more difficult – the Nationals check in at .817, nearly 100 points higher than the Nelson opponents to this point. They are limited right now because of injuries, especially in the OF, but that Harper/Zimmerman/Murphy/Rendon quarter in the middle will be there. It means a prime opportunity to get out the magnifying lens in watching this one. The 2017 Jimmy Nelson is indeed a much-improved specimen, but the favorable ride to this stage does impact how his power ratings should be set.
It’s been Morton’s Pepper, not Morton’s Salt
Charlie Morton’s transformation from a ground-ball guy to a strikeout pitcher has been one of the most surprising stories of the MLB season, and the level of intrigue is increasing – after dominating the Phillies last night Morton is now sitting on 24 strikeouts vs. only 12 hits allowed in three starts since the All Star break.
At 8-4/3.83 the overall bottom line is good, but still may not set off fireworks for some. It is the style aspect that matters so much in how we put Morton’s power rating together. His GB% of 50.7 is well below the career 55.1 standard, and his lowest showing in the category since 2010. But the elevation in strikeout counts has been stunning, now sitting at 10.1 K/9, compared to a career 6.7.
Want to have some real fun with this, in terms of setting a perspective? Let’s look at the average fastball mph of pitchers that have worked at least 80 innings this season -
- Severino 97.6
- Martinez 96.9
- Cole 96.6
- Ramirez 96.5
- Fulmer 96.2
- Strasburg 96.2
- Morton 96.1
There would have been little reason to suspect that from a guy that is nearing his 34th birthday, and has averaged 93.4 across his career. But don’t stop there; it isn’t just about the heat itself, but what it has helped to set up. Morton had found his way to MLB rotations as a sinker-baller but is now throwing his curve 27.2 percent of the time, far above the 20.6 career norm. It is the added velocity of the fastball setting the curve up (96.1 VS. 81.1) that is causing such headaches for opposing hitters.
Now Morton is not just dealing with the added confidence that comes from success, but the prospect of a World Series. That added adrenaline may be a factor down the stretch, especially since his innings count is low enough that fatigue should not be a factor (as to whether he can stay healthy, well…)
There is no particular reason for it to get better for James Shields
The first PB column here at the new home focused in on how we could isolate the particular struggles of James Shields, and also a prime handicapping notion regarding value. It isn’t a secret to anyone in the marketplace that Shields is struggling, his 5.85 ERA and 6.01 FIP of 2016 now having the added weight of 5.79 and 6.83 in those same categories this season – he has been the worst full-time starter in MLB.
But betting markets often struggle to handle extremes, and while that means no bargains will be found trying to buck Shields, there is still the prospect of grinding if you commit to staying in play. There is something that he may not have any ability to correct right now – as his velocity slows, opposing hitters are getting more time to read the strike zone, and the increased walks, and reduced numbers of swings at pitches outside of the zone, are continuing at a rate that is likely not a swinging pendulum, but instead the arc of a career coming to an end -
Shields BB% O-Swing%
2014 4.7 33.2
2015 9.4 31.7
2016 10.0 28.5
2017 11.6 22.0
I’ll be making the Run Line the path with #977 Chicago Cubs (8:10 Eastern) this evening. What had been an under-achieving Cubs offense though much of this season has gone from a .744 OPS before the All Star break to .883 since, and it isn’t much of a “road” game at all, the players heading over to the South Side this evening after waking up in their own beds (at least in theory…).
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