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Romano: Tall pitchers take time to peak
By John Romano, Times Columnist
Published February 22, 2008
The soon-to-be 25-year-old Jeff Niemann had 123 strikeouts and 46 walks in 131 innings at Triple-A Durham last season.
[James Borchuck | Times]
[James Borchuck | Times]
Maybe this season the Rays' top pick in 2004, Jeff Niemann, will put his 6-foot-9 frame on a major-league mound.
ST. PETERSBURG - If you listen long enough to the whispers, you will hear that Jeff Niemann is running late. That his development has come too slow, and his potential has evaporated too fast.
That he is no longer among Tampa Bay's hottest pitching prospects, and that he has fallen woefully behind the other elite arms from the draft of 2004.
If you listen long enough to the whispers, you will miss this important possibility:
That perhaps Niemann is close to being on schedule.
There is something obvious here that has somehow gone unnoticed. Niemann is a member of a small group of professional pitchers 6 feet 9 or taller, and history says those guys are invariably late bloomers.
Future Hall of Famer Randy Johnson did not make it to the big leagues until he was 25. The same is true for San Diego All-Star Chris Young. Niemann? He turns 25 in six days.
Admittedly, the sampling is small. Only eight pitchers as tall as the 6-9 Niemann have ever reached the majors. But among those eight, only one had more than a handful of appearances before age 25. And that one is Andrew Sisco, who turned 25 last month and has a 3-9 career record with a 5.18 ERA.
You could dismiss it as coincidence, but it looks like more than that. It has the feel of a trend, based on a logical assumption.
The mantra of pitching gurus everywhere is that pitchers must have a consistent delivery to the plate. Like a golfer repeating his swing, a pitcher's delivery has to be absolutely repetitive, if not flawless.
And for a 6-9 pitcher that is, well, a tall order.
"The average kid who is over 6-6 is going to struggle with that just because everything is longer and it takes longer to get everything going in the right direction," Rays minor-league pitching coordinator Dick Bosman said. "You think of the Randy Johnsons of the world, and guys like that, they struggled mightily for years."
As basic as it seems, a pitcher's delivery can go haywire in a number of ways.
His plant foot has to find a comfortable hole next to the rubber to maintain his balance. His arm motion has to begin in unison with his front leg kick so he is releasing the ball at the optimum moment. His hip has to turn properly, his front leg has to have the right direction toward the plate, his follow through has to be pure.
Essentially, you want a clean delivery without a lot of moving parts. Just like a hitter is taught to keep his swing compact instead of long, a pitcher needs to keep his delivery as simple as possible.
"My moving parts are a lot longer than someone shorter, that's obvious," Niemann said. "Pitching is such a rhythm, timing, balance type of movement, it stands to reason that it will take a little longer for bigger guys to hone in on all those moving parts. To get my brain and my arm in synch together.
"Staying in rhythm and repeating my motion is tough for me to do. It's hard for everyone to learn, but my flaws are magnified because of my size."
Control is the biggest factor in repeating delivery. Not necessarily just throwing strikes, but pinpointing the ball within the zone. For Niemann, that means throwing his low-and-away fastball whenever he wants.
There were signs last season that it was coming together for him. Niemann went 12-6 with a 3.98 ERA in his first season in Triple A and was named to the International League All-Star Game, as well as playing in the Futures Game before the major-league All-Star Game.
He comes to spring training as a contender for one of two openings in the rotation, although it seems more likely the Rays will want to see him dominate at Durham for a month or two before calling him back up.
Perfecting his delivery is not the only factor here. Niemann missed 2004 negotiating a contract after the Rays made him the No. 4 draft pick, and he missed parts of two seasons with shoulder and groin problems. For a guy about to turn 25, he has pitched only 238 innings in three minor-league seasons.
Meanwhile, he has seen other pitchers from the 2004 draft excelling in the majors. Justin Verlander has won 17 and 18 games with the Tigers the past two seasons, and threw a no-hitter. Jered Weaver has a 24-9 career record with the Angels. Huston Street has averaged 25 saves a season for three years in Oakland.
Even in the Rays organization, others have moved more quickly: Scott Kazmir, Edwin Jackson, J.P. Howell, Andy Sonnanstine and recently acquired Matt Garza are all younger than Niemann.
If the slow pace of his ascension bothers him, Niemann hides it well. He showed up in camp noticeably trimmer, and says he spent the offseason working on getting stronger and more flexible.
And he's saying all the right things about accepting his role, whether it means going to Triple A, shifting to the bullpen or winning a rotation job.
"Whatever role I can help the organization best, that's the role I'm going to embrace," Niemann said. "There are too many good arms around here for me to think it's going to be handed to me."