Jeff Niemann had an effective outing today on paper. He threw 48 of 72 pitches for strikes, allowed four hits, two of which never left the infield, walked three batters and struck out three. One might see those numbers and think Niemann strengthened his case for the fifth starter spot, or, at the least, helped his trade value. Yet in watching this game, he may have done neither.
Technical difficulties prohibited me from charting every pitch but I was able to get most of the pitches from the first three innings of play. I charted pitch type, pitch velocity, and pitch location. Eighteen of the 42 pitches I was able to chart were secondary pitches, as Niemann was clearly working on his other pitches today. What concerned me is Niemann’s velocity. When he threw his fastball he topped out around 87 mph, which is not a recipe for success for a right-handed starter. Niemann didn’t make up for the lack of oomph with improved command and control, either, as he hit his target on just 19 of the 42 pitches.
After the game, bench coach Dave Martinez relayed a message to the Rays Radio team from Jose Lobaton that the catcher had never seen Niemann’s fastball with that much movement. The comment should be tempered by the fact Lobaton has caught Niemann just seven times in his major league career. Niemann addressed the velocity concerns with Neil Solondz after the game and had this to say:
“I think the gun’s a little off. I worked on a lot of cutters, two-seamers, we’re definitely working on more movement right now, and getting those bad swings and weakly hit balls. For me it’s more important what the hitter’s telling me than what the radar gun says.”
It is entirely possible that the gun may have been off in the early innings and received a calibration adjustment later when Orioles phenom Dylan Bundy was hitting 97 on the same gun in the seventh inning. Kevin Gausman, who started the game for the Orioles, was measured pitching in the low-to-mid-90s throughout his outing, however. So if the gun was off, it might not be off by as much as Niemann would like. (It’s also worth pointing out that Niemann’s deep release point helps make the pitch look quicker than it is, though that effect works best when he’s throwing pitches with velocities that start with a 9.)
It matters most what Joe Maddon thinks about what he saw today. Here’s what he said: