Does Jimmy Nelson have the best pure stuff in the Brewers organization? The answer is yes, or at least that’s what a source who has closely followed the right-handed pitcher’s career told me. And after hearing that, my curiosity was piqued — especially after Nelson faltered in the second half of 2012 and posted a 7.24 BB/9 in his first taste of Double-A.
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I talked to Nelson about his early struggles. “I ran into command problems the second half as a combination of adjusting to the league and missing a month with shoulder fatigue and inflammation,” he told me. Now healthy, the 23-year-old has posted better than a 5:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio through his first four starts.
Against a Chattanooga Lookouts roster headlined by Dodgers prospect Yasiel Puig, Nelson didn’t flinch. For five innings, he attacked hitters with a power fastball/slider mix that resulted in eight strikeouts and no walks. In one inning, Nelson says he tired to overwhelm Puig — a right-handed hitter — with multiple sliders. The result was another K for Nelson. “You can’t be intimidated or scared by good hitters,” Nelson says. “As soon as you fall behind a guy like [Puig], he’s likely to square something up pretty good. You have to pitch to your strengths.”
Those strengths include a four-seam fastball at 94 mph to 95 mph that has late tail away from left-handed hitters. Nelson peppered the strike zone with the pitch, though he’ll need to sharpen his command to the corners before he reaches Milwaukee. For now, though, it’s not a concern. “The pitching coaches have been trying to get me to use my pitches over the plate and trust my movement instead of trying to trick somebody or make a perfect pitch,” he says.
Nelson also threw a two-seam fastball at 92 mph with similar movement to that of his four-seamer, only it was more exaggerated.
Nelson presents with easy velocity and a strong, durable frame. At 6-foot-6, his ability to work downhill makes his fastball difficult to elevate. The result is a ground-ball-heavy arsenal with swing-and-miss stuff from a slider that flashes plus.
The slider generally sits between 85 mph and 87 mph — and touched 88 mph — and features sharp, late break down-and-away from right-handed hitters. Unlike most pitchers who start the pitch middle-out and cut it to the corner of the plate, Nelson threw a handful of sliders at the front elbow of right-handed hitters. This handcuffed more than one Lookouts batter who was forced to bail out before the slider broke across the plate’s inner half.
My only concern about Nelson’s arsenal is a perceived lack of confidence in his changeup. “I threw five changeups,” Nelson told me of the game I saw him pitch. (I clocked him at 84 mph on the one offering I measured.) “It’s a pitch I have, and it’s a good pitch for me. Sometimes, in games, I feel I can execute [another] pitch a little bit better, but it’s a pitch I trust as much as my two fastballs and slider.”
This sentiment was backed by a scout who’d seen Nelson pitch earlier and said the changeup was a potential plus pitch.
At a time when one would expect fierce competition to reach Milwaukee, Nelson is also working to share his second-half experiences with other members of the pitching staff that includes former first-round pick Taylor Jungmann. “Knowing what to expect I can explain things to him (Jungmann), so he doesn’t have to face those same troubles I faced last year,” Nelson says. “The coaches help us get better, but players have to take advantage of other players’ experiences, too.”
After scouting him as two-pitch closer candidate, learning about Nelson’s changeup leaves me confident in his ability to develop as a starter at the major league level. Fellow Brewers pitcher Wily Peralta passed through the Southern League at a younger age, but he didn’t have the same quality of stuff Nelson does now.
Through the first month of the 2013 season, few pitchers are off to a better start than Nelson. Rank top prospects in the Brewers organization today and the right-hander is in the running for the top spot. And with a glut of upper-level pitching prospects with mid-to-back-of-the-rotation ceilings, Nelson is achieving success and is separating himself from the pack.