Niemann At His Best

Jeff Niemann’s 2007 season can be viewed two ways. The half-full approach holds that Niemann entered the season with 108 career innings as a pro and had a successful year for Triple-A Durham because he made only one disabled list trip (for minor shoulder fatigue) and set all kinds of career highs, most importantly with 25 starts and 131 innings pitched.

The half-empty viewpoint emphasizes the fact that Niemann still throws a four-seam fastball in the 94-96 mph range and has a plus slider, yet allowed 144 hits (a .277 opponents average) and posted a 3.96 ERA. In other words, he didn’t dominate–in fact, he made only one start longer than six innings, and it lasted seven innings.

Last night, in the International League’s Governor’s Cup finals, Niemann showed he can still dominate. The 6-foot-9, 280-pound righty threw a season-high eight innings, struck out nine without a walk and scattered six hits in the Bulls’ 5-1 victory against Richmond, evening the series at a game apiece. Devil Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman called the game Niemann’s best effort as a professional, and the numbers backed him up.

The keys for Niemann were working around a first-and-third, one-out jam in the first with a strikeout and popout, and working in a split-finger fastball to lefthanded hitters. Niemann’ shorter outings this season often have stemmed from high pitch counts when he struggles to put hitters away with two strikes. He hasn’t had the fastball command or consistency with his slider to put people away like he did during his All-America career at Rice, but the split-finger gave him another weapon Wednesday night, one he used to overpower the R-Braves.

When Niemann was drafted third overall in 2004, he seemed a candidate to move quickly to the majors, but injuries (groin, shoulder, elbow) have slowed his timetable. In the interim, the Rays have developed impressive pitching depth in the minors, led by the Double-A tandem of righthander Wade Davis and lefthander Jacob McGee, and they drafted David Price first overall in June.

Now Niemann is throwing his best baseball in mid-September and has logged 144 innings, counting two playoff starts. In other words, he’s shown he’s quite close to being ready to help the Rays’ big league rotation, where he should settle in eventually as a middle-of-the-rotation starter–one who can dominate when it all comes together, as it did Wednesday.