Jimmy Nelson Found a New Pitch

The list of guys with new pitches every spring runs deep (27 last year on Jason Collette’s excellent list). The list of those that continue to throw those pitches during the regular season is a little bit shorter (23 last year). And the group that see real success from adding that extra pitch is even shorter — ten pitchers added more than a percentage point to their swinging strike rate thanks to a new pitch last year.

This year, the Spring Training list was once again full. Brewers’ starter Jimmy Nelson is on there, and he’s often been called a two-pitch guy since his changeup is not a plus pitch. Now he’s added a spike curve to his mid-90s fastball and above-average slider. He used it plenty in his first start, so he’s already made the jump to the second list. Can his new pitch mean continued success this year?

Attached to Adam McCalvy’s great spring piece on Nelson’s new curve is this interview about the spike curve and why the pitcher gravitated towards it. The grip is key, as the spike grip keeps the Brewer’s breaking balls from morphing into one pitch. Zack Greinke told us that he quit throwing the cutter because it was screwing with his slider, so this is something we’ve heard before.

But for the pitch to be successful, we might want it to be very different from the slider. Or, at least, for the pitch to be successful against lefties, we would want it to look more like a big 12-to-6 curveball than a slurve or a power curve. At least, that’s what the research on platoon splits for pitches says.

Let’s compare the movement we got from Nelson’s first curves to his slider, and the average slider and curveball values for right-handers last year.

Pitch Velocity Horizontal Movement Vertical Movement
Jimmy Nelson Slider 86.5 4.4 0.6
Average RHP Slider 83.9 2.6 1.4
Jimmy Nelson Curve 81.9 5.9 -8.0
Average RHP Curve 77.3 5.6 -5.6

The velocity separation is not quite as large on Nelson’s two breaking balls, and that might be expected from a knuckle curve. The idea according to A.J. Burnett, at least, is to throw the pitch like a fastball, and just as hard. So Nelson’s breaking balls are about two mph closer in velocity than the average right-hander’s.

At least in terms of movement, though, he’s set. The vertical drop on his curve would have ranked 43rd of the 189 pitchers that threw the curve 100 times or more last year, and drop like that is good for ground balls. By that same study, velocity is good for curves, and Nelson’s 81.2 mph would have been 26th of 190 last year. Looks like a good curveball.

You’d also expect a curve ball with that kind of drop to have reverse platoon splits. Against lefties last week, Nelson used the curve 15 times against one slider. He used nine curves against six sliders against righties. Not only is that taking to a new pitch with gusto, it’s a good sign that he has found something to battle lefties with.

Let’s look at the pitch in action, with the slider on the left (88 mph) and the curve on the right (82 mph).


If he can command the curve, Nelson has a more complete arsenal today than he did last year. The early returns on this one are positive, too. Just one game, but he threw 31 sliders and curves, and the breakers were in the zone 45% of the time. That’s double the zone percentage on his 27 changeups thrown to date.

Jimmy Nelson threw one changeup against the Pirates in his first start. And that’s okay. He may have found the pitch he needs already in that knuckle curve.

With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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7 years ago

I know you said last week that you had zero shares of Nelson, but are you now buying Eno?

Eric Hosmer
7 years ago
Reply to  JV

You ain’t getting me to buy Eno!