Has Anything Changed with Jeff Niemann?

by Eno Sarris //

Sometimes, you just like a guy. In the case of Jeff Niemann, there are things to like. He’s got a great nickname, for one. “The Big Nyquil” is big – six-foot nine – and owns a skillset capable of lulling a fan to sleep. His 16 pitches per inning in his rookie year, and his Trachsel-like pace on the mound, inspired the nickname, popularized by Rays blog DRaysBay.com.

NiemannGrab.jpgAs a fan of undervalued players, that’s good enough reason for this fan to follow Niemann, and even enough reason to draft him. Look how Niemann stacks up against the top 10 pitchers in baseball this year, in the Bloomberg Sports Fantasy Tools spider graph to the right. With his great start (and only 14 pitches per inning), is he worth more attention?

First, the role of luck in Niemann’s career should be charted. Take a look at his underlying statistics and the difference in ERA below. Pretty interesting that a pitcher could be so similar in two years and yet have such different ERAs, isn’t it? The fact that the two xFIPs (a number that strips out batted-ball luck and normalizes home-run rates, then produces a number on the ERA scale) are exactly the same gives you a clearer picture of Niemann’s true ability level.

NiemannStats.jpgThis table seems to suggest that Niemann’s underlying game hasn’t changed much, so we should probably expect something more like last year’s surface stats in the future. In fact, with his strikeout rates declining, could we expect worse?

It’s not all bad with Niemann. He has increased his groundball percentage (from 40.5% to 45.6%). Unfortunately, thanks to work by Harry Pavlidis that published just last week, we can see that Niemann’s new groundball percentage is pretty close to the average groundball rate on all pitches in baseball so far this year (44%). So he improved… to average.

What about swing rates? Take a look at the table on the right, with statistics courtesy of FanGraphs.com. Almost every single swing rate is either the same or marginally worse thisNiemannStats2.jpg year. Batters are reaching at pitches about the same, seeing about as many pitches inside and outside the zone, and making contact just a little bit more this year. That last number is swinging strike percentage (or whiff %), and it’s below-average (8.5%). That’s why Niemann doesn’t rack up the strikeouts.

It’s fine to like a pitcher, whether for his quirks on the mound or aspects of his game. But when you are playing fantasy baseball, and you have a player that has secondary statistics that have remained static while their ERA has fluctuated, it’s best to trust the underlying numbers. As you can see in this case in particular, those secondary statistics remain more stable.

In the case of Niemann, they paint the picture of a mid-rotation major league starter, and a low-end option in most mixed leagues. If Niemann’s perceived value is that of a more elite pitcher, take advantage and sell high.

For more on Jeff “The Big Nyquil” Niemann and other surging pitchers, check out Bloomberg Sports’ Fantasy Tools.

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