Jimmy Nelson was a big storyline during a relatively boring spring for the Brewers. He was given a spot in the rotation after the Brewers traded away Yovani Gallardo. Then when spring training began he unveiled a new spike curveball to add to his usual mix of fastball/slider/rare changeup. And then his results in spring were not so good, but he kept his rotation spot anyway.
Beyond those storylines that kept the beat writers busy, one thing that slipped a bit was rhetoric about dialing back his fastball. The Brewers made some news early in the spring by announcing they would not point a radar gun at any pitchers for the first few weeks of camp to try to guard against overthrowing. There was also some talk specifically about Nelson learning that he didn't need to give every fastball 100% effort, and that he would be better off dialing it back on occasion.
On Saturday, in easily the best start of his young career so far, Nelson threw 56 fastballs at an average of about 93 mph (pitch f/x counted 20 as 4-seamers and 36 as sinkers). That average was more than a full mile per hour slower than his average in 2014, which was usually up in the mid to high 94s.
In fact, Nelson's start on Saturday marked both the lowest average velocity and the lowest maximum velocity in any career appearance so far for both his sinker and four-seam fastball. He likely has 95 or 96 mph available if he needs it, but this is something we haven't seen before from Nelson in the big leagues. It looks to me like he was intentionally sacrificing his top velocity for control and movement, and it sure seemed to work.
Here's the career velocity chart for Nelson's sinker from Fangraphs. The green dot is a within-game average and the bar extends to the maximum and minimum velocity in an outing.
After 6 mostly awful games, we could use something nice to talk about. Nelson's new curveball will get a lot of credit for his performance (and it is fantastic) but this velocity thing is something we will need to keep an eye on. I'll gladly take Nelson sacrificing a mile per hour for better movement and control.
Before Nelson's callup last summer we talked a lot about his track record of struggling to adjust after being bumped up a level. It's early, but maybe now his time has arrived.