Wisconsin Timber Rattler right-handed pitcher Jimmy Nelson was drafted by the Brewers in the second round of the 2010 June amateur draft out of the University of Alabama. This past offseason Baseball America named Nelson the 10th best prospect in the Brewers’ system, calling the sinker/slider specialist a potential “workhorse” starter. Late last week, Mr. Nelson took the time to talk with me about a variety of topics. Here’s the transcript:
Toby Harrmann: Thank you again for doing this.
Jimmy Nelson: No problem.
TH: You probably get this all the time, but I’ll ask it anyway. Is it possible for a gritty, tough as nails pitcher to come from a place called Niceville? [ed.: Nelson was born in Niceville, Florida.]
JN: You know, I’ve always gotten jokes about that. “Oh, is it nice there?” is the first question people always ask. In between starts, I like to be an easy going guy, though I work hard and stuff. I find that when I’m out on the mound, I pitch better when I have the mentality of just attacking guys and I will get pumped up every now and then a little bit.
TH: Can you describe Jimmy Nelson the pitcher… can you give a scouting report of you?
JN: I throw two different fastballs, a four-seam and then a sinking fastball, change-up and a slider. My slider has probably been my best offspeed pitch for my entire career, but my change-up has come a long way here at Wisconsin. They’ve done a really good job of helping me develop that and that’s really become a legitimate out pitch right now, too. I’m learning how to use my movement rather than just overpower guys.
TH: So have the Brewers had you tone down the velocity a little bit in order to focus on movement? In college your fastball was clocked at about 95. Do you still throw that hard now?
JN: In college I was mainly throwing four-seam fastballs and sliders. And the four-seam is still up there in that range, but I’m just mixing in a lot more sinkers, which are in more the low 90’s region. So I’m still low to mid [90’s], but I’m just learning how to pitch better. In college there’s a lot of adrenaline and I was throwing all four-seams which are usually a couple miles an hour harder, so yah, I was probably throwing a click harder in college. But here, there’s a lot of guys that throw low to mid 90’s, so you’ve really got to learn how to pitch and use your movement, especially as you move up the ladder. When you get to high-A, AA, AAA, those guys can square up 95-plus. It’s really been a big learning year. And I had a rough first half, but I’m learning from it.
TH: Do you model your pitching after any pitcher in particular, such as a sinkerballer like Derek Lowe or Brandon Webb?
JN: Not really. When I grew up, I always liked Roger Clemens simply because of his work ethic and his demeanor out on the mound, but I don’t have the same kind of stuff as him. You could compare [my pitching] to any power sinker/slider guy, but I use the two-seam [sinker] and the four-seam almost fifty-fifty and I know a lot of sinker ball guys in the big leagues use strictly sinkers. I’m learning how to use two different fastballs to keep hitters off balance and try to keep them from squaring it up.
TH: Are there any pitches in your repertoire that the Brewers won’t let you throw, like a knuckleball or an eephus?
JN: No, not anything crazy like that. I tried throwing a cutter for a couple outings. I didn’t use [the cutter] enough in the games for it to even actually be a pitch. My four-seam just naturally cuts in on a lefty. I already have four different pitches so there’s no need to add another pitch. I’m still developing and getting a feel for those.
TH: Going back a couple of years, you were drafted by the Reds in the 39th round of the 2007 draft. Were you close to signing with them, or was it just a case of too late in the draft and not enough money?
JN: They actually put a really, really good offer on the table there for me. Probably a fourth round deal. It just wasn’t enough to skip that college experience and I felt like I wasn’t mature enough to really handle failure at that point, being 17-18 years old. I knew it was going to take more to skip college and I had a really good scholarship to go to the University of Alabama, which is an unbelievable sports school, an unbelievable school. I knew I was going to go there and mature and really learn how to use my body. I was always big and didn’t learn how to use my body very well until my second or third year in college.
TH: Talk about your time at Alabama. How did you change as a pitcher from the end of high school to the end of your time with the Crimson Tide?
JN: I had a really rough time during my freshman year there. I was really struggling, not only with command, but… I was giving up hits whenever I wasn’t walking guys. I was going though a really rough time mentally and physically. I put on probably 15 pounds in the fall and was starting to fill out and was really learning how to use my body, and I was kind of fighting myself for awhile. That first year there was really the hardest year I’ve ever had. And I think that if I didn’t have that one year, I feel like the first half of this season would have been a lot harder for me and I would have gotten a lot more down on myself. But I’ve been through that struggle my freshman year and I think that prepared me a lot for what I had to go through here, my first full year of pro ball.
I didn’t add any pitches [at Alabama], but I did start to get a lot more movement on my fastball during my freshman year. It started sinking a lot, and that was one of the reasons I had a hard time controlling it because all the sudden I was throwing fastballs that were sinking and I didn’t understand how to get a feel for that pitch yet… I had a lot of walks. My sophomore year, it was a little bit of the same story the first half and then the second half of the season and the playoffs I started throwing better and it started clicking here and there. There would be little streaks where I’d have a good outing or two and then I’d have a bad one.
Then I put it all together my junior year. I started being more of a competitor and a bulldog on the mound, just challenging guys and I was throwing a little harder. I also had two good summers, playing in Texas my freshman/sophomore year and then in Florida my sophomore/junior year, which helped me build up confidence for the seasons.
TH: Did you do anything differently your junior year?
JN: My first year and a half to two years it wasn’t a question of stuff, it was just a mental thing… it was more I had to get my head on straight and I really had to concentrate on how to deal with good things and bad things, and I think that’s one of the hardest parts of the game. It’s hard dealing with failure, but it can be hard dealing with success, too. My freshman year, I had to deal with the failure and then in the summer, I would throw really good, so I learned how to keep an even keel. It was never a question of stuff… people always told me, just throw it at the middle of the plate and let it move. That was something I couldn’t grasp and was beating my head against the wall my first year at Alabama.
TH: Now going back to last summer and the draft, did you have any indication that Milwaukee was interested in you?
JN: I really didn’t know. Draft day is crazy with all the stuff that happens. I woke up the second day of the draft, where they start the second round… I was actually woken up by a call from the Brewers. They called and asked me if I was drafted in the second, would I sign for slot [money], and I said, “Yes, sir.” They said, “If you’re still there by the time we pick, then we’re going to take you.” And that was pretty much the entire conversation I had with the Brewers that entire season my junior year. You have guys watching you all fall your junior year, all your scrimmages and stuff, your practices. I never talked to the Brewers then. I had an idea of a handful of teams I thought [might draft me]. They had picks before the Brewers, but when I saw that they passed up on me, I knew the Brewers were going to take me and I was pretty excited.
TH: Being that Dylan Covey, the Brewers first round draft pick last year, didn’t sign, you are the Brewers top draft pick from last year’s draft. Do you feel any pressure because of that?
JN: No, I don’t feel any pressure at all. There’s all that hype about the draft, but once you get here with a group of guys, the guys aren’t walking around with a sign on their back to tell you when they were drafted. You get here and you do your job, no matter if you’re the first pick or the fiftieth pick.It’s just all about getting it done. There have been plenty of high round guys that have struggled and been stuck in the minors and there have been plenty of low round guys that have succeeded and gotten to the bigs.
TH: Can you describe the experience of playing in Helena last year? A lot different than playing mostly in Florida and Alabama, I imagine.
JN: Yah, it was definitely a culture change. Coming from living a couple miles from the beach, Helena is a lot different. Kind of secluded. The first month you just learn how to live the professional lifestyle, how to carry yourself, all the travel and stuff like that. It gets you acclimated for playing for a full season team.
TH: Was it strange going back to relief pitching, something you hadn’t done regularly in over a year?
JN: No… that’s something they do a lot with guys that have a lot of innings coming out of college. They try to keep your innings under a certain mark. They monitor that very well. That’s why you’ll a lot of guys in rookie ball and short season only throw 30-40 innings because they already have 110 innings during the college season. It wasn’t really a big deal. The way I took it was I would throw three innings, and they would usually try to tell me before the game how many innings the starter was going to go, so I would still prepare myself in the same way like I was starting, but I would just prepare myself like I was starting in the fourth or fifth inning instead of the first.
TH: Speaking of inning caps, do the Brewers have a limit they want to keep you under this year given that you threw about 140 innings last year?
JN: I threw about 155 [innings] last year, including starts after the season. I’m not sure what the number is, but it’s not going to be anything crazy over 150. I think it’s going to be 150-160. Once I start getting to 150-plus, that’s when I’ll start shutting it down. But right now I’m on pace to finish under that for the entire season, so it shouldn’t be a big deal.
TH: You mentioned that you’ve been pitching better as the year as gone on, especially in your last run of starts. What do you attribute this to? Is it a mechanical thing? Strength and conditioning? Just making better pitches?
JN: It’s a little bit of everything, really. You always hear people saying, “midseason form” and that when you’re at your best, and you try to carry that midseason form out to the end of the season. Even at Alabama, once I got to that 60 inning mark, I’d always start throwing better. I guess that’s because I’ve learned from the mistakes in the previous outings and physically, my body is getting used to going deeper into games. I’ve made a mechanical tweak here and there but I’d attribute more of my success to just learning from your past outings and letting my body get used to its work load.
TH: You touched on the before… the Brewers are big on the change-up and you said your change-up has come a long way. Do they have you throwing a specific number of change-ups per game?
JN: They want you to get double-digit change-ups in if you’re throwing 90-100 pitches. And that’s not even that hard, to throw 10 change-ups out of 100 pitches. It’s just something we need to do to get used to that pitch and use it at the big league level because a good change-up, hitters will tell you, is one of the hardest pitches to hit. It’s just tough when a guy has full arm speed, but the ball is coming out 10 miles per hour slower, even if it’s straight. It’s one of those pitches you just have to throw a lot.
TH: How is your arm speed between the fastball and the change-up?
JN: Good, it’s the same. In the past my change-up has either been to hard or my arm slowed down too much to throw it [well]. This year, we’ve really been working on it. Now I’m confident with my [change-up] grip to keep my arm full speed. I’ve been missing some with it, but it shows flashes of being a really good pitch and the more I throw it, the less misses I have with it and I’ll keep getting a better feel for it.
TH: Do you have any one pitch you go to for a strikeout pitch, or does it vary batter to batter?
JN: It’s all situational, depends on what kind of hitter it is. I can bury a slider… I’ve always had a pretty good, hard slider. Some hitters like the fastball up, so you throw the fastball up and in. It’s more about locating… you can strike anybody out with any pitch, as long as you locate it where you want.
TH: You’ve been to Miller Park a few times now. What kind of motivation does that give you?
JN: It’s awesome. It’s an unbelievable place. We’ve used the locker room a few times and I kind of want to bring an air mattress and live in there. It’s definitely motivation for you to get up there.
TH: Do you have any specific goals as far as a time frame for getting to Milwaukee?
JN: Not really. I don’t like to look that far ahead. I’m just trying to focus on here in Wisconsin and I don’t even really think about getting pulled up to Brevard [County, the Brewers high-A affiliate]. You don’t have any control over that. That’s another thing I’ve learned this year, is to control what I can control and not get upset about factors that I have no handle over. I’m just trying to throw my best and whatever they decide to do with me, as far as moving up or down or whatever, is out of my hands.
TH: Lightning round… what’s the better movie: Fight Club or Inception?
JN: Inception. It’s one of my favorites. I like movies that make you think a little bit.
TH: What do you think about dandelions: beautiful flower or weed?
JN: They’re a weed!
TH: Finish this sentence: “If I weren’t playing baseball, I’d be…”
JN: Finish up my degree in kinesiology and sports science, minor in nutrition and either try and coach somewhere or be a strength coach. Try to stay in the game of baseball.
TH: Would you rather have the power to read minds or the power to fly?
JN: Read minds.
TH: Can you tell me a good joke?
JN: Not one interview-worthy. I’m more of a listening to jokes guy than a telling jokes guy.
TH: Thank you, sir. Good luck the rest of the season!
JN: Thank you, I appreciate it.
You can follow Jimmy Nelson on Twitter: @Jimmy_J_Nelson.