Milwaukee Brewers: Jimmy Nelson’s sudden regression

Milwaukee Brewers Jimmy Nelson has struggled mightily since June. Photo Credit: Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports
Milwaukee Brewers Jimmy Nelson has struggled mightily since June. Photo Credit: Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports /

Jimmy Nelson looked like an ace in the first two months of 2016, then he suddenly became a liability for the Milwaukee Brewers’ staff.

Nelson takes the hill tonight sporting a 4.42 ERA, 1.515 WHIP and 4.3 walks per nine innings (BB/9), worst among Milwaukee Brewers‘ starters.

After a solid 2015 campaign (4.11 ERA, 1.286 WHIP), Nelson came out firing this season with a 2.88 ERA and a .222 batting average against through his first 11 starts.

The righty was 5-3 during that span while the Brewers went 7-4 when he took the ball.

Nelson allowed two earned runs or less in nine of the 11 starts, pitched into the 7th inning six times, and held opponents to a .373 slugging percentage.

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His last performance before the calendar flipped to June was a 7.1-inning outing as he struck out five, gave up six hits, and allowed just two runs to cross home.

Then out of nowhere, Nelson became the worst pitcher on the club outside of Wily Peralta.

Nelson gave up six earned runs in two of the next three games with eight strikeouts, eight walks, a 9.69 ERA and an opponents’ OPS of 1.105 over 13 frames.

Since June 3, he has been a bad pitcher – plain and simple.

Save for a few games where Nelson limited the scoring to a few runs, he teetered on the edge of disaster in these last 19 contests.

Over that span, he’s 5-14 with a 5.57 ERA, while batters are hitting .300 with an .854 OPS.

So what’s the problem?

If you go by ERA+ (100 is average), he’s been roughly the same pitcher with a 96 ERA+ in both seasons – slightly below average.

When attacking his slider, Nelson’s opponents have a .450 OPS this year and a .453 OPS all time.

There’s always more details to sift through, of course.

For one, Nelson’s command has been poor all season. He has walked at least three batters in more than half his starts, and given a free pass to four or more hitters on eight occasions.

This was a dangerous sign even when he was pitching well in April and May.

While his command certainly plays a role, it’s Nelson’s pitch selections that hurt him when hitters realized his plan.

For some reason, Nelson has thrown a lower percentage of sliders and knuckle-curves this season, hampering his success for the Milwaukee Brewers.

Nelson threw his slider 19.8 percent of the time in 2015 and the curve on 17.5 percent of his pitches. This year the slider and curveball use is down to 17 and 11.1 percent respectively.

Milwaukee Brewers Jimmy Nelson
Milwaukee Brewers Jimmy Nelson needs to regroup in 2017. Photo Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports /

He also saw a huge spike in sinkers. throwing the hard, diving pitch almost 50 percent of the time (49.2).

On the surface that may not seem like a big deal, but here’s how it has negatively impacted Nelson.

Hitters own an .867 OPS against his sinker in 2016 and an .840 OPS during his career.

When attacking his slider, Nelson’s opponents have a .450 OPS this year and a .453 OPS all time.

Why would you throw such an effective pitch even more infrequently in 2016? Is this a philosophical change brought in by new pitching coach, Derek Johnson?

The curve has been hit harder this season (.800 OPS), but Nelson has held all batters to a .702 OPS on that pitch in his career, and thrown it six percent less often in 2016.

Nelson should, logically, be throwing his breaking balls more often. He’s even throwing them in the strike zone at a higher rate this season.

Of course, that might be part of the problem. Nelson isn’t throwing enough pitches for batters to chase.

Because he’s not burying pitches down or getting them far enough off the plate, hitters are making more contact against the off-speed stuff.

But I don’t buy that as a convincing factor in throwing less off-speed, because they’re still teeing off on his sinker and fastball at a much more impressive clip.

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He’s getting the same amount of movement, just not locating as well. Though again, if he used those pitches more, he might have a better feel for them.

Unless Nelson is hurt and hasn’t said anything (possible), this appears to be a strategic adjustment that he committed to making.

The early success probably convinced him to stick with it, even though he was already walking the world in April and having less pronounced issues.

Nelson needs to clear his head of 2016, chalk it up as a typical step back in a pitcher’s progression, and come out in the spring thinking of pitching backwards more often.

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He needs to back to trusting the slider and knuckle-curve early in counts, when he’s behind a batter, and when he desperately needs a strikeout.

Only with more dedicated work and execution will those pitches develop. It was a poor choice to back off on the breaking balls in 2016. The results don’t lie.