Jimmy Nelson shut the Pirates down in Milwaukee on April 11th. He scattered only two hits and two walks over seven innings while striking out nine batters.
In that first start, Nelson showed command of four pitches the Pirates did not expect to see. Notably, a curveball and slider combination that devastated Pittsburgh throughout.
Of his 88 pitches, FanGraphs PITCH f/x recorded 35.3 percent as breaking pitches — 27.3% curveballs and 8% sliders.
The curveball was particularly devastating, as the Pirates did not record a single hit on any of the 24 Nelson threw. Four of his strikeouts that day were finished with the curve as Pittsburgh whiffed on 83.3% of swings taken at Nelson’s curveball, and every one the Pirates contacted was hit on the ground.
Overall, the Pirates didn’t hit Nelson hard when they did manage to make contact. Of the 12 balls the Pirates put in play for outs, eight were groundouts, three were flyouts and one was an infield pop up. None were line drives.
The pitcher Nelson was April 11th was one the Pirates essentially had no idea existed. Although they never faced Nelson before that day, manager Clint Hurdle and the rest of the Pirates knew of Nelson from scouting, including watching him during Spring Training. His performance then was nothing like what he showed in Milwaukee.
“Nelson had command challenges in the past,” Hurdle said. “He had command of four pitches. He never had command of four pitches in Spring Training. He never threw more than a handful of breaking balls and he threw 25 of ‘em and threw it very well.”
Nelson kept the Pirates off-balance all game with his four-pitch mix of a fastball, sinker, slider and curveball. Pittsburgh swung at 45.5% of Nelson’s pitches and made contact on 62.5% of those swings.
The breaking pitches contributed to that low number as the Pirates swung at 34% of pitches outside of the zone and made contact on only 37.5% of those swings.
On Friday, the Pirates’ outs alone indicated they had a better read on what Nelson offered, let alone what the scoreboard said at the end of their 6-3 victory.
While 10 groundballs went for outs, one was a flyball and the Pirates hit four line-drive outs.
Adjustments and making better contact translated to Nelson lasting for 73 pitches and five innings, although the game’s circumstances played into his early hook as well.
Pittsburgh scored three runs on five hits as Andrew McCutchen ground out a nine-pitch RBI single and Josh Harrison and Sean Rodriguez drove in runs with singles as the Pirates capitalized on an active running game.
The Pirates swung at nearly the exact same amount of pitches, taking cuts at 45.8% of Nelson’s offerings Friday. This time around, their contact percentage was significantly higher at 78.8%.
Likewise, the Pirates swung at 33.3% of pitches outside of the strike zone but their success is what boosted their performance against Nelson the second time. They made contact on 72.7% of swings, nearly double their rate from the previous game.
Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said after Friday’s game that Nelson didn’t do as good of a job getting his breaking pitches down in the zone when compared to his start six days prior.
Nelson threw another 24 curveballs against the Pirates Friday, but wasn’t nearly as successful with the pitch. Pittsburgh made contact on 87.5% of swings taken, and the Pirates got two of their biggest hits of the night when Nelson threw his curveball.
Nelson added he made mistakes of his own by leaving some breaking pitches — notably the RBI singles by Rodriguez and Harrison — that caught too much of the plate. He also noticed the Pirates were slightly more prepared for his curveball.
“They did a good job of making adjustments,” Nelson said. “That’s what big-league hitters do.”
Aside from that, Nelson simply chalked his second outing up to the fact “you’re not going to be sharp every time out.”