By Tommy Rancel //
A second-half shoulder injury along with some heavy regression to the mean, slowed Jeff Niemann’s progress in 2010. Still, the former first-round pick went 12-8 in 30 games pitched. Deemed healthy in the spring, the beginning of his 2011 campaign looked a lot like the end of last season’s. In the first six starts of the year, Niemann went 1-4 with an ERA near 6.00. A sore back in early May put him back on the disabled list for nearly six weeks.
Upon return from the DL, Niemann has been much improved. His overall record stands at 4-4 with a respectable 3.94 ERA. Even defensive independent metrics like FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) and xFIP (Expected Fielding Independent Pitching) – two metrics that strip away defense and luck from a pitchers performance – peg him in the 3.90-4.00 range. Considering the first six starts, it has taken some fine work by Niemann since returning to get his overall numbers in line. He has made five starts since being activated going 3-0 with an ERA right around 2.00. His defensive independent marks have him closer to 3.00; however, that’s a above-average peformance regardless.
Before his May vacation, Niemann – who stands 6-foot-9 – was having trouble keeping the ball down and achieving a downward plane in his motion. A slight groundball pitcher throughout his career, he had allowed more flyballs than grounders through six starts. In his five starts since, Niemann’s groundball rate has spiked over 50% thanks to the return of that downward tilt and movement.
In a 16-inning epic on Sunday that ended in a 1-0 loss for his team, the big right-hander had one of his best starts ever. Facing the league’s top offense in the Boston Red Sox, Niemann tossed eight scoreless innings allowing just two walks and two hits while striking out a career-high 10 batters. In his previous start, Niemann allowed just one run in 7.1 innings against another powerful lineup – the New York Yankees – in a notorious hitter’s park – Yankee Stadium.
In addition to his two-seam fastball being effective against the Red Sox, Niemann featured a solid curveball. He threw 31 breaking balls with 21 of them strikes. This year, Niemann’s teammate – James Shields – has had success pitching backwards or throwing off-speed pitches and breaking balls in traditional fastball counts. In an effort to keep the Boston hitters off balance, Niemann threw 10 first-pitch curveballs or changeups on Sunday. Rays’ manager Joe Maddon has dubbed this style of pitching backwards “pitching 2.0.”
Because of his .500 record, the ERA near 4.00, and his time on the DL, Niemann should readily be available in most leagues either on waivers or as a buy-low trade candidate. While he doesn’t project to be much better than the 3.94 ERA he currently has, he could top double-digit wins for a third consecutive season. Also consider the Rays above-average defense behind him; especially if he continues to rack up groundballs in bunches. David Price, James Shields, and Jeremy Hellickson are the most talked about Rays’ starters and with good reason. Meanwhile, Niemann might be the most attractive Tampa Bay starter to acquire in your league right now.