Last week, when Jeff Niemann peppered the backstop at the Big A during his wild return from the DL, I wrote that some rust was to be expected because, at 6’11″, Niemann has more moving parts than most pitchers to get into his rhythm.
During the first five innings last night, I thought his rhythm (and his command), was returning. Then he got to the 6th. Unlike Anaheim, Niemann continued to pound the strike zone when he hit the wall in the 6th. (according to Brooks Baseball, 8 of his 14 pitches in the inning were strikes). But, the problem is, some of those 8 strikes weren’t supposed to be strikes.
Adam Lind’s game-tying double is a perfect example. (The video is here. Go to the 1:00 minute mark.) Lind smoked either a two-seam fastball or a bad slider that was down, in, and over the plate. Right in his nitro-zone. Niemann was definitely trying to get that pitch off-the-plate inside under Lind’s hands. There is no other reasonable explanation for throwing a pitch anywhere near Lind’s hot zone with the go-ahead run on second.
So, that seems to beg the question, why did Niemann miss so badly in such a big spot? Looking at his delivery again, I think it is because he is afraid of re-injuring his arm. Remember, Niemann is a guy with a long history of arm problems whose major league career was delayed by multiple arm injuries. Instead of turning loose a nasty pitch that passes through Lind’s hot zone, he hedged, didn’t test his shoulder, and left the pitch out over the plate.
In fact, fear of injury explains the difference between the way Wade Davis and Niemann have re-emerged from the DL. Davis is using the same aggressive style and delivery he has all year. But Davis doesn’t have a history of injury and likely is not concerned about re-injuring himself.
At the moment, that fear of re-injury is the biggest hurdle between Jeff Niemann and a starring role in a post-season run.