Coming into the 2017 season, only two starting pitchers were guaranteed spots in the Opening Day rotation. Beyond that, there were five pitchers competing for the other three available slots in the starting five. After a subpar 2016 season, Jimmy Nelson entered spring training as one of the arms competing for a starting role.
Nelson, 28, was considered to be Milwaukee’s top pitching prospect and one of the best young arms in all the minor leagues not too long ago. Nearly three years into his big league career, though, Jimmy had yet to live up to that promise. He showed glimpses of his potential during a solidly league-average 2015 season, but took major steps back in 2016. Nelson lead the league in walks and hit batsmen, struggled to miss bats and had difficulty keeping the ball in the park. A 4.62 ERA was accompanied by a 5.12 FIP and 5.83 DRA, and Nelson’s future with Milwaukee was starting to look a bit cloudy.
Jimmy ultimately won the #5 spot in the starting rotation to start the year, but through the first month of the season it looked like he might not last long in that spot. He owned a 5.34 earned run average at the end of April, doling out 10 walks and yielding 34 hits through his first 28.2 innings pitched. Once the calendar turned to May, though, Nelson seemingly flipped a switch and pitched like a true “ace” for the rest of his season.
Jimmy wound up making 29 starts for the Brewers this year, tallying a career-best 3.49 ERA across 175.1 innings pitched. Jimmy worked closely with pitching coach Derek Johnson last year on some mechanical changes that wound up paying significant dividends in 2017: increased fastball velocity (94.6 MPH), a big uptick in strikeouts (199, 10.21 K/9), an immense dip in walks (48, 2.46 BB/9), decreased hard contact, a higher ground ball rate, and less home runs allowed. A change in pitch mix - a sizable decrease in sinker usage accompanied by increased sliders and, more substantially, curveballs - no doubt played a major role in Jimmy’s success on the mound in 2017 as well.
Only two pitchers on the team worked at least 40 innings and had better strikeout rates than Nelson: Corey Knebel and Josh Hader. His innings pitched total was the 2nd-highest on the team behind Zach Davies, and his home run rate of 0.82 HR/9 was 4th-lowest. Among qualified MLB starting pitchers, Nelson’s 3.05 FIP ranked him as the 5th-best starter in baseball this year, behind some guys named Sale, Kluber, Strasburg, and Scherzer and just ahead of a cat named Kershaw. In terms of Deserved Run Average, Jimmy’s 3.58 DRA was 24% better than the league average pitcher in 2017.
Nelson had some of the more memorable pitching moments of the season for the Milwaukee Nine, as well. He outdueled Kershaw and the Dodgers across 8 shutout innings back on June 2nd, though Milwaukee ultimately lost that game in 12 innings. He threw the club’s only complete game of the season on June 18th, allowing just an unearned run with 10 strikeouts against the Padres at Miller Park. He also tossed 7 shutout innings with 11 strikeouts in a must-win game against the Nationals on September 1, helping propel the Brewers to a 1-0 victory.
When taking a look at Nelson’s year through the lens of wins above replacement, he has a good case for the Most Valuable Brewer of 2017. He accrued 4.9 fWAR, 3.1 bWAR, and 3.9 WARP, which averages to 3.97 WAR, the highest composite WAR total of any Brewer this year. Based on the voting, however, Nelson came in behind Travis Shaw as the #2 MVBrewer this season.
Unfortunately, the way Nelson’s breakout season ended now casts some major uncertainty on his future. During what wound up as his final start of the season on September 8th against the Cubs, Nelson slugged a ball off the wall while batting, rounded first a little too hard and slid awkwardly headfirst while trying to scamper back to the bag. He exited the game an inning later and was diagnosed with a torn right labrum and strained rotator cuff. He wound up undergoing shoulder surgery a couple weeks later. The club is now saying that Nelson will miss a significant chunk of the 2018 season, and given the history for labrum injuries it’s fair to wonder if he’ll ever fully regain the level of excellence that he established this season.
Here’s hoping for the best going forward for the 2017 MVBrewer #2.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball Prospectus and Fangraphs