A couple days ago, I wrote a post about the Twins bullpen and why I think it will be better than we anticipate for the 2011 season. I briefly talked about some players that could rebound this year, and one of those guys I mentioned was Pat Neshek.
Neshek broke into the major leagues in 2006 at 25 years old, and his quirky sidearm delivery helped him to a 2.19 ERA (2.88 FIP) with 53 strikeouts and 6 walks in 37 innings. The same dominance happened in 2007, as he had a 2.94 ERA (3.67 FIP) in over 70 innings, again striking out over a batter per inning. However, 2008 didn’t start as well as the previous two seasons, and he eventually was sidelined by a tear in his UCL which led to Tommy John surgery.
Last season was the first game action Neshek had since 2008, and the results were mixed. He did have a 5.00 ERA (5.52 FIP) over 9 innings, and his once solid control (2.76 BB/9) was lacking (8.00 BB/9 in 2010). Perhaps most concerning was that his fastball velocity – previously averaging just under 90 MPH – had dropped into the mid-80s.
However, there were a few silver linings for Neshek. First, despite the decrease in velocity, he was still able to strike out a batter per inning. Second, his batting average allowed of .216 was still very good, even if it didn’t match up to his ’06-’07 numbers (.181 and .182, respectively).
A wise person would point out that these 2010 numbers constitute a small sample size and Neshek’s numbers in Triple-A Rochester were much worse (5.72 K/9 and .265 batting average allowed), and I’ll admit that this is true. I do have a retort, though, and it’s something that we’ve learned after hundreds of Tommy John surgeries. But before I get to that, I want to look at the movement of Neshek’s pitches.
From the Pitch F/X portion of the Texas Leaguers website, we can take a look at the movement of pitches BTJ (Before Tommy John) and ATJ (After Tommy John) for Neshek. BTJ, he generated good movement on his fastball and slider. As we see below, his fastball would break 10 inches into a righthanded batter, and his slider would break just a little into the hands of a lefthanded hitter. There are some change-ups classified with the sliders, but I’m willing to bet that those were just identified incorrectly.
Note: The Texas Leaguers website omits Neshek’s 2006 season because it does not have data for any seasons prior to 2007.
Compare the movement of the fastball and slider to ATJ Neshek.
Like I said before, we see far more change-ups than fastballs because Neshek’s velocity had dipped into the mid-80s. Another difference is the BTJ graph had two distinct clumps of fastballs and sliders, whereas the ATJ graph isn’t as clear. Not only do Neshek’s ATJ sliders break less horizontally and more downwards, but the fastball also appears to sink a little more than before. A look at Neshek’s “Spin Movement With Gravity” graphs confirms that the slower pitches were dropping a little more.
Now that I’ve finished my detour through pitch movement, I can return to why things may be looking up for Pat Neshek. After so many Tommy John surgeries, we’ve learned two things that could help restore faith in the sidearmer.
1. Control is one of the last things to return to a pitcher that is recovering from Tommy John surgery.
2. Velocity tends to increase, even from the pitcher’s velocity before the operation.
Neshek did have an issue with walking hitters in the majors last season, although that was odd considering he had a 2.97 BB/9 in Rochester. Even if you think his 9 innings in the majors was more representative than his 39 in Rochester, history has shown that it takes a while to get the walks back to normal. The reason I mention this is because in his short stint in the majors last season, Neshek’s only real problem statistically was with walks.
As for the velocity, history suggests that Neshek will return to throwing in the high-80s and possibly could get into the low-90s. This would be a very welcome sign, and would give Neshek a very good shot at flummoxing hitters as he did in 2006 and 2007.