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The leash may be running short on Jimmy Nelson’s comeback bid

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He worked hard to get back, but he may have already received the kiss of death from his manager.

MLB: Miami Marlins at Milwaukee Brewers Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

When the manager of the Milwaukee Brewers says that the team “needs to discuss” a specific player staying in their role during his four years at the helm, that has generally been the proverbial kiss of death in Craig Counsell parlance. The latest player to find himself as the subject of such discussions is Jimmy Nelson after his most recent debacle, five runs given up in five innings during a 7-1 loss to the Reds:

“That’s something we’re going to have to discuss, for sure. We need production. We need results. You’ve got to earn your way. We need guys that are going to help us win. Jimmy’s not pitching because we need to let him pitch. We’re pitching him because we think he can help us win.”

As has been well chronicled, Nelson spent nearly two years working his way back from a right shoulder reconstruction that included surgical repair to his labrum, rotator cuff, and capsule. The simple fact that he even returned to the big leagues after the grueling journey that he endured — the monotonous, mind-numbing rehab, multiple setbacks and plateaus, the complicated pregnancy and premature birth of his twin daughters — is nothing short of astounding, and he deserves to be commended for that. He says all the right things and by all accounts is as hard a worker as they come. His makeup is outstanding and he is an easy guy to root for. But the results from the hurler’s first three starts indicate that this reincarnation of Jimmy Nelson is either not ready to be back in the big leagues, or that he is no longer a viable MLB starter.

Nelson has worked 12.0 innings across his three starts so far and has allowed 14 runs, 13 of which have been earned. He has struck out 13 of the 63 hitters that he’s faced, but he has also doled out 10 free passes and coughed up a pair of dingers. Hitters are making hard contact 41% of the time against Nelson and have produced a .308 batting average against, leading to a putrid 2.17 WHIP. He may not totally deserve his 9.75 ERA, but both FIP- (134) and DRA- (129) see his current level of production as essentially unplayable for a team that is looking to defend its NL Central championship.

Jimmy clearly is not the same pitcher that he was before the injury in on that fateful September day in 2017, and it’s more than just the 2 MPH loss on his fastball. Nelson has said that he basically had to re-learn how to throw the baseball and has returned to action with a different delivery. The result is that his arsenal, while consisting of the same pitches as before, is one that features a vastly different movement profile than it did during his breakout year.

When comparing the above two charts — Nelson in 2017 versus Nelson in 2019 — it is easy to spot the differences. Nelson has added significant horizontal movement (compared to the league average) on his four-seamer, sinker, slider, and curveball. But he has lost quite a bit of vertical movement on every pitch but his sinker, especially on his two breaking pitches. The major changes in the way his offerings move are undoubtedly causing some of the control issues that Nelson has demonstrated, as he himself is likely still learning how his pitches act in live game situations. His 41.9% zone rating is nearly a 12-point drop off from where it was in 2017, and his pitches simply aren’t fooling anyone right now; he is generating swings on only 21.1% of his offerings outside the zone (31.8% in 2017), and his 9.0% swinging-strike rate is a two-plus point drop-off from 2017 (11.4%).

Maybe, with some more time, Jimmy Nelson can master his new arsenal and return to being an effective MLB hurler. But it doesn’t appear that the 24.0 innings he threw at Triple-A before getting recalled were enough for him to prepare for the challenge of facing the best hitters in the world after such a long lay-off. Unfortunately for Nelson, the team simply cannot afford to wait for him as he attempts to figure things out at the MLB level. Nelson has officially surpassed the five-year service time threshold, meaning that he can decline an optional assignment to the minor leagues, but it’s hard to argue that that may be the best course of action for both the player and the team at the current juncture.

Counsell, David Stearns, and the rest of Milwaukee’s brain trust have yet to make an official decision on Nelson’s near-term future, but they certainly aren’t instilling any confidence in his continued presence on the 25 man roster. If the club does decide to go a different direction, there is no shortage of options that the Menomonee Valley Nine could turn to. CC recently extolled the work and extensive arsenal of Adrian Houser, who has already made spot starts this year. Freddy Peralta remains stretched out and on the big league roster, though he’s been removed from the rotation twice already this season. Aaron Wilkerson and Burch Smith are both on the 40-man roster and enjoying excellent seasons in Triple-A, as is Trey Supak down in Double-A. Gio Gonzalez is on the mend and rumors have already started to swirl about starting pitchers that the Brewers may target on the trade market, though a decision on Nelson will need to come before either of those two options are viable.

We should have more clarity soon, as the next scheduled start for Jimmy Nelson’s spot in the rotation coming on June 26th.

Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Brooks Baseball