So. Jeff Niemann has taken the hill five times since coming off the 15-day DL on August 25. He has stunk in four of those outings, was barely adequate in the other, pitched to a 14.43 ERA, and put the club hopelessly behind the 8-ball four times in the heat of a pennant race.
During that time, I have gone through the baseball equivalent of the stages of grief. I wrote off the struggles in his first start as the natural result of a 6’9″ body finding its rhythm again. Then, I explained away his struggles in his second start reasoning that a guy with Niemann’s injury history is naturally going to have a mental hurdle to overcome when coming off the DL. After that, I brushed off the September 6 stinker at Boston by looking at the big picture.
Finally, my persistence started to feel justified after Niemann’s last start at Toronto. He left the game down 3-1 but turned in an acceptable outing against a good offensive team. I even saved a link to the St. Pete Times game story from that day reasoning that I would refer back to Niemann’s 1-2-3 5th inning as the moment he returned to form.
After yesterday’s performance (really? Three straight 3-2 fastballs to Peter Bourjos?), I am done trying to figure out what is going on and am moving on to what Niemann’s continued struggles mean for the rest of the season.
It is September 20. The Rays are what they are at this point in the season. They are going to make the playoffs and they are probably going to have to use Jeff Niemann at some point. I see four choices, each with major hurdles:
- The Rays can leave Niemann off the roster for the ALDS reasoning that a rotation of Price, Garza, and Shields can survive the short series. The big downside here is that Niemann seems to be struggling because he lost his rhythm while not pitching for 15-days. I don’t think not pitching during the interminably long ALDS will get his rhythm back.
- The Rays can just avoid using Niemann at all during the postseason, instead using a three-man rotation in the ALCS and World Series. This worked for the 2009 Yankees, but just barely. This is the nuclear option.
- The Rays could use Jeremy Hellickson in Niemann’s place. This option is certainly going to be popular with casual fans but it isn’t the sure thing it appears to be. First, it has significant long-term risks because it both increases Hellickson’s innings and risks Niemann’s long-term psyche (whether we use him or not this October, we are going to need him next March. Can he overcome such a slap in the face when his confidence is already so fragile? I don’t know). Second, we don’t really know if we can make Hellickson back into a starter on such short notice after screwing around with his brain in the bullpen.
- The Rays could just stick with Niemann. Maybe he figures it out, maybe he doesn’t. Sometimes, you just have to ride the horse that brung you and see where the chips fall. Reading the tea leaves in the skipper’s post-game comments, I think he is leaning this way:
“I don’t see anything wrong with him, except he’s just not able to execute his pitches right now as he had been able to earlier this season and last year,” Maddon said. “And I really believe it’s still building his confidence, and when we get that back, you’re going to see that fastball where he wants it.”
I guess this team is going to win or lose at least one postseason game with Jeff Niemann on the hill. Time to stop evaluating his mistakes and start hoping for a turnaround.
*One interesting thought that just popped into my head. What if the Rays combined options 3 and 4? Hellickson’s bullpen issues are reportedly caused by the change in his warmup and pre-game routine. Maybe the Rays could just start Niemann in a game while also having Hellickson go through all the pre-game warmups and preparation as though he were the starting pitcher. Niemann gets a short leash and, as soon as he hits a bump, they go to Hellickson. If anyone, in the history of baseball, is comfortable being the first manager to use two starting pitchers, it is Maddon…right? Thoughts?