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The Usefulness of Pitcher Jimmy Nelson

As Tommy John surgery spreads across baseball like the bubonic plague, perhaps it would be worthwhile to re-name the Cy Young award after the famed sports surgeon James Andrews. Fortunately, Milwaukee has avoided this mighty scourge of arm injuries. The Brewers managed to get to Memorial Day weekend with their rotation completely intact. Unfortunately, such luck came to an end Sunday, as Yovani Gallardo was scratched from his start against Miami. Replacing Gallardo on the hill was right-hander Jimmy Nelson. Despite picking up the win on Sunday, Nelson was sent back to AAA Nashville. On the positive side, Nelson’s demotion indicates that Gallardo should be ready to make his next start and that the rotation’s run of good health will continue. Yet this is not the last we have seen of Nelson in the majors this year. He deserves to play a prominent role for the Brewers down the stretch, even if it means moving him to the bullpen.

Nelson has had success in the minors this year by improving his control. The Oregon native is dominating Pacific Coast League hitters to the tune of a 1.71 ERA and a Kershaw-esque 0.93 WHIP. To be fair, some of this success has been a bit fortuitous. Nelson has stranded an unsustainably high 79% of his base runners for the Sounds. Similarly, his miniscule .245 BABIP indicates that he is due for a bit of regression. However, despite these cautionary asides, Nelson’s success is not merely a fluke. He has substantively improved his command this season. Nelson struggled with free passes in his first stint at AAA, walking 5.40 batters per 9 innings last year. Yet 2014 has been a noticeable improvement, as Nelson has had just 2.64 BB/9IP this year. Nelson displayed a similar pattern in AA. He had a high walk rate (7.24 BB/9) in his 2012 AA debut. However, starting 2013 at AA, he improved his control and posted an outstanding 1.96 BB/9, thereby earning a promotion. Nelson typically struggles with command upon reaching a new level, but gradually improves once he gets comfortable. It seems that he is a cerebral pitcher who is very capable of making needed adjustments.

In recent years, promoting young pitchers has been a key to pennant races. Last year St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and Oakland prominently featured rookie pitchers in the postseason. There is no reason Nelson couldn’t play a similar role if Milwaukee stays in contention. In fact, he turns 25 next week, meaning he is already older than last year’s sensations Michael Wacha, Gerrit Cole, and Sonny Gray. While GM Doug Melvin certainly wants to avoid rushing Nelson, his age increases the urgency to get him up to the majors full time. Yet, as noted, the Brewers have been very fortunate with the health of their starters. Therefore there is not a rotation spot available for Nelson on the big league roster.

Perhaps, however, he could help the Brewers as a reliever. Of course, it is always dangerous to mess with a pitcher’s rhythm by moving him between the rotation and the bullpen. Yet Nelson’s circumstances are unique. First, he had success as a major league reliever last year, compiling a 0.90 ERA. Secondly, his pitch arsenal seems nicely suited for a relief role. Nelson relies heavily on his fastball and his slider. Using just a few pitches can be more deadly in the bullpen than in the rotation – just look at the success of other converted starters, like the Yankees’ Dellin Betances. Further, if the Crew is battling for a playoff berth, it would be a shame to leave the club’s top prospect toiling in AAA. At some point, the team will need Nelson to keep them in the hunt, no matter what role he serves.