About a month ago, I heard something on a Brewers radio broadcast that gave me an idea for a post. I believe it was Jeff Levering who said, “Jimmy Nelson is having a great season.” He really emphasized the “great.” When I heard this, my reaction was, ‘No, he is not.’
I shouldn’t just pick on Levering. A month ago it was not uncommon to hear people say how well Jimmy Nelson had been pitching.
Of course, before I was able to make the post refuting this, Nelson went out and gave up six runs in four innings. Then, over the month of June, he posted a 5.87 ERA and an OPS against of .895. Woof. Suddenly, my take had cooled considerably.
I am still going to refute the claim that Nelson has ever been “great” or even all that good at any point this season before discussing just how valuable he is. In April and May, Nelson had a sparkling 2.88 ERA. This is a great number, but it’s also why ERA can’t tell us all that much. A closer look reveals that Nelson was much more of an average pitcher the first two months than a good one, and actually, probably even below average. His FIP was 4.56, and his xFIP was 4.37. This is a pretty massive discrepancy from his ERA. The reason was largely good fortune; he was aided by a very low .253 batting average on balls in play (league average is around .300). His strikeout-to-walk ratio was just over 2, which is also pretty average.
And that’s counting only his two best months. Factoring in Nelson’s total season so far, it’s impossible to not call him a bust so far in 2016. Again, we need to look past his ERA of 3.60. His K rate is just 6.63 per nine innings, while his walk rate is 3.98 per nine. He has a k/bb ratio of 1.67. His FIP is 4.94, and his xFIP is 4.87. Each of these is a below average figure for a starting pitcher. And he is supposed to be the Brewers’ best pitcher!
I also regularly get the impression that people view Nelson as a young pitcher. He’s not. He broke into the big leagues at a pretty late age, and he’s already 27 years old. Essentially, he should be in his prime right now. If this is his prime, Nelson will never be a top-of-the-rotation starter or even anything more than a number 4. This isn’t to say he can’t improve, but we should probably stop expecting it to happen. Coming up through the minors, Nelson was billed as a power pitcher. His career K rate is 7.24; league average is about 7.7. He was also billed as someone who limited walks. His career BB rate is 3.35; league average is about 2.9. Finally, his career home run/fly ball ratio is 11.3%; league average is around 9.5%.
All this tells us that Nelson has been a below average starting pitcher in his career, and he’s no longer a young pitcher. So why is he so readily considered a long-term piece for the Brewers?
Any time I hear a discussion about trade candidates, Jimmy Nelson is almost never mentioned. People point to the remaining four years of team control as a reason to keep him around, but what good is four years of team control if it’s going to four years of below average performance? Again, we don’t know that it will be, but it is foolish to expect him to be above average when we haven’t even seen Nelson reach league average levels yet.
Before this season, the Brewers likely could have gotten a nice return for Nelson in a trade. He’s likely lost most of that trade value with a disappointing season. The Brewers have already seen a one former highly regarded prospect bottom out in Wily Peralta. I am not saying Nelson is headed down that path, but thinking he is is no more delusional than assuming he’ll ever become the number two starter that many hoped for.