Jimmy Nelson casually rummaged around in his locker in the Milwaukee Brewers clubhouse, a half circle of media reporters waiting behind him. Logan Schafer smiled and playfully slapped his arm to get "the rook" to turn around and fulfill the obligation of meeting the hometown media.
One could forgive Nelson for being a little distracted – he was called up to big club from Class AAA Nashville to take over the fifth starting spot in the rotation, and the Brewers were in the midst of a six-game losing streak and hosting the charging St. Louis Cardinals.
He had made a spot start on the road in Miami in late May, tossing 5 2/3 shutout innings while striking out six and while in Nashville, Nelson turned in an All-Star campaign to earn the promotion. He had gone 10-2 with a sparkling 1.46 earned run average and only walked 32 in 111 innings.
Unfortunately, the big right-hander was welcomed by the Cardinals on July 12 with six earned runs (eight total) in just 4 1/3 innings.
It was a tough spot for the righty, as the Brewers were in the midst of a six-game losing streak and had seen its lead over St. Louis fall to just one game.
And, the night before, shortstop Jean Segura and his teammates had learned of the death of Segura's infant son in the Dominican Republic.
"I think when I first came up here, obviously you’re trying to impress people. It’s human nature," Nelson admitted. "That’s one of the things that we talked about, just trying to get that external stuff out of your mind and just focus on executing your pitches."
Coming out of the break however, Nelson struggled along with the rest of the club.
In nine consecutive starts from July 22 through Sept. 7, Nelson went 1-6 with a 4.19 ERA in 53 2/3 innings. Opponents hit .273 and slugged .421.
"My command within the zone was a little off and I fell behind too many guys and that was the whole half of the season," he said. "If you’re going to do that, you’re going to get hurt."
He was moved to the bullpen for two appearances in which he gave up two earned runs in 1 1/3 innings before ending the season on Sept. 26 by allowing five earned runs in just over four innings against the Chicago Cubs.
In his last 13 games (11 starts) of the 2014 season, Nelson went 1-9 with a 5.37 ERA.
"Obviously it’s a tale of two seasons for me," Nelson said. "I had a great first half and i know what I was doing mechanically, physical and mentally and it’s something I want to get back to. I’ve had the most frustrating and disappointing second half of a season I’ve ever had. And, I’m just going to take the good things I’ve learned here. I’ve learned a lot here from the veteran guys. And from experience. And, I’m just going to use that as motivation to go into his offseason and work harder than I did last offseason and I know I’ll come in to spring training next year ready to go."
Despite all of his promise, Nelson’s struggled in a variety of aspects of the game while with the Brewers — especially as the game unfolded and batters saw more pitches.
Opponents hit .265 off him in his first 25 pitches, but their average soared to .338 against pitches 26 to 50 and .314 pitches 51 to 75. He rebounded late in some starts, with opponents hitting .216 in 59 plate appearances in pitches 76 to 100.
"He’s strong; he’s going to be able to go deep in game," Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said "But he’s got to get the ball down. You can’t throw 10 sliders and a lot of them leave them up. You’ve got to be pretty consistent down. Fastball, same thing."
According to fangraphs.com pitch f/x tool, Nelson threw 255 fastballs last year and opponents teed off, hitting .291 off those pitches. Nelson also threw 276 sliders, which proved to be his most effective pitch, as opponents only hit .192 off it.
A criticism of Nelson’s as the summer wore on the was the lack of a major league quality third pitch – specifically his changeup.
"It helps," Roenicke said of a third pitch. "If you have one, it certainly helps. Jimmy’s 93 to 95 fastball along with an 88 to 90 slider and that’s it. There’s nothing soft. It would help him."
But, Nelson insisted he not only had one, but threw it more often than it looked.
"For me, I trust it," he said "It’s something I’ve developed through the minor leagues and for me it’s just getting back to my game plan like I did the first half."
That goes against the date of the pitch f/x tool, which accounted for Nelson throwing just 24 changeups in 2014.
"I think I’ve throw more changeups than people assume," he said. "Sometimes it’s hard by the naked eye, especially when someone fouls one off. Or say you spike one, or bury one in the dirt, sometimes that’s hard to tell by the human eye. Even when you’re watching video with someone within the game, sometimes it’s hard to tell, too. But we know what it is and I know I’ve got to work on it."
Whenever he did throw it, opposing batters were ready for it, hitting .333 of the changeups the machines did recognize.
"I just came up here and really just tried to establish the strike zone first with my fastball and then we were trying to work my, obviously my best secondary pitch, which is my slider," Nelson said. "So you know, when I first came up I was struggling with getting ahead of guys. So when you struggle with getting ahead of guys, it kind of handcuffs you to not being able to throw your third or fourth pitch very often. So guys took advantage of that."
Even with the struggles he faced in 2014, Nelson didn’t let his rough ride through the majors shake his confidence. It was a lesson the veteran players helped teach, and it was something he has dealt with before — only to come out better the following year.
"The last four years I’ve struggled at that next level," Nelson said. "I’ve gone through some struggles, but it’s helped me to learn and work harder each offseason, and the next year I came back and I started off well and I’ve done well. It’s just another case of that. It’s nothing I haven’t been through."
Roenicke sees the promise, too.
"I think once he starts commanding the ball and (is) getting the ball down, especially in this ballpark where we know it flies well, I think he’s going to do really well," he said.
Jim Owczarski is an award-winning sports journalist and comes to Milwaukee by way of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Network.
A three-year Wisconsin resident who has considered Milwaukee a second home for the better part of seven years, he brings to the market experience covering nearly all major and college sports.
To this point in his career, he has been awarded six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, breaking news and projects. He is also a four-time nominee for the prestigious Peter J. Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, and is a two-time winner for Best Sports Story. He has also won numerous other Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press and Northern Illinois Newspaper Association awards.
Jim's career started in earnest as a North Central College (Naperville, Ill.) senior in 2002 when he received a Richter Fellowship to cover the Chicago White Sox in spring training. He was hired by the Naperville Sun in 2003 and moved on to the Aurora Beacon News in 2007 before joining OnMilwaukee.com.
In that time, he has covered the events, news and personalities that make up the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, NCAA football, baseball and men's and women's basketball as well as boxing, mixed martial arts and various U.S. Olympic teams.
Golf aficionados who venture into Illinois have also read Jim in GOLF Chicago Magazine as well as the Chicago District Golfer and Illinois Golfer magazines.