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“Yo, Breen! You just got a new four-top!”

I sighed heavily, placed my bookmark in The Odyssey, and walked out with a smile to great my newest table at the local burger joint. An older woman asked me for the specials, and I struggled to recall the burger of the day. Something f—— weird with avocado, is all I could remember. I had only gotten two hours of sleep the night before, and I was in the latter-half of a weekend double. My mind was fried. “I’ll go check. I’m sorry, I’ll be right back.” She frowned back at me.

I was a brand-new graduate student at the University of Virginia, pursuing a PhD in Religious History. People warn you about the unreasonable workload in graduate school, but you can never really be prepared. I had four classes, and all of them assigned at least a book per week. And a response paper. And supplemental reading, if time permitted. And my advisor wanted to discuss my booklist I should be working through in my free time. Meanwhile, I tried to make extra money on the side waiting tables and simultaneously struggled to be a caring and present boyfriend to my long-distance girlfriend, who lived in Minnesota.

Merely two months into the academic year, I hit my breaking point. I shocked my parents, my girlfriend, and my advisor by withdrawing from my program at UVA. I quit my job and moved to Minnesota in the span of two weeks. The grad school dream was over. I gave it a shot, and it proved too much. It overwhelmed me and I broke.

You don’t often get a second chance to do things, to re-commit yourself and do better. A couple years after dropping out of UVA’s program and working in the so-called “real world,” my now-wife convinced me to try graduate school once more. After a stressful round of applications, I accepted an offer at the University of Chicago.

Despite my nerves and doubts, a funny thing happened. I arrived for orientation and found that I was more mentally prepared than my fellow first-years. That feeling carried into the academic year. While my fellow students hyperventilated, cried, and (a few) dropped out during autumn term, I quietly and resolutely plodded along. It meant weekends in the library, late nights editing papers, and lots (lots) of coffee—and plenty of what the hell are you doing? Thoughts—but my previous failure set the stage for my future success in my program. In many ways, what mattered most in my early success was having previous experience in graduate school. I knew what to expect.

A couple of years later, my journey isn’t over—I have a paper on changes in Latin American church-state relations due on Tuesday—but I can say that I grabbed my second chance by the scruff of the neck and am encouraged by the results. I’m happy, too. Er, as happy as one can be in a rigorous, soul-crushing grad program, that is. Failing, if you want to call it failing, in my first go-round wasn’t the end. In fact, I’m now convinced that’s the only reason I have found any sort of success whatsoever.

*****

The Milwaukee Brewers drafted Jimmy Nelson in the second round of the 2010 Draft out of the University of Alabama. He methodically worked his way through the Brewers’ system, spending time at every level from rookie ball in the Pioneer League to Triple-A in the PCL. The right-hander finally got some love as a prospect prior to the 2014 season, as Baseball America and MLB.com pegged him as a top-100 prospect. Baseball Prospectus ranked him number two in the Brewers’ minor-league system.

Nelson gained some heat in 2014, though, in more than one way. Reports surfaced that his sinker was sitting 94-95 mph and his slider had improved to become a potential plus offering. Furthermore, he laid waste to the difficult Pacific Coast League. In 111.0 innings for Triple-A Nashville, Nelson posted a 1.46 ERA and was striking out over a batter per inning. Naturally, that grabbed everyone’s attention, both inside and outside fantasy circles, and his July call-up to the majors was met with cautious hype.

It didn’t go that well. Nelson compiled a 4.93 ERA in 12 starts with a 2-9 record. His 3.78 FIP suggested his underlying skills might lead to better performance in the future, but fantasy owners were disappointed to see his strikeout rate drop to 7.40 K/9 and his 66.6 percent strand rate highlighted significant troubles pitching out of the stretch.

In the end, fantasy owners lost a lot of faith in Jimmy Nelson. Despite getting a vote of confidence from GM Doug Melvin and his manager, Ron Roenicke, and being named the number-five starter before spring training began, his average-draft position in fantasy drafts indicated massive distrust. He was the 99th-overall starter selected on draft day, behind guys like Noah Syndergaard—who had injury concerns and was guaranteed to start the year in Triple-A. To put it differently, in a standard 12-team snake draft, the average fantasy league saw Nelson being drafted in the 30th round and ESPN leagues only go 26 rounds.

The right-hander who dominated Triple-A and had generated ample buzz amongst scouts prior to his big-league promotion was essentially beginning the season on the waiver wire in most leagues. Even still, he’s only owned in 50 percent of ESPN leagues.

Nelson had always been one for second chances, though. The right-hander had a long track record of performing much better in his second season at any given level, even stretching back to college. Here are his numbers since he reached full-season ball:

Year

Level

ERA

K/9

BB/9

2011

A

4.38

7.40

4.01

2012

A

2.21

8.52

2.77

2012

AA

3.91

8.22

7.24

2013

AA

2.74

9.39

1.96

2013

AAA

3.67

9.83

5.40

2014

AAA

1.46

9.24

2.59

2014

MLB

4.93

7.40

2.47

2015

MLB

1.35

7.65

1.80

The overarching trend is unmistakable. Jimmy Nelson has tended to struggle in his first taste of any specific level, but his bounce-back performance at that level has been strong. That speaks to his make-up as a pitcher; however, it also highlights the general struggles that accompany performing in new locations and against more difficult levels of competition. Players should not be expected to simply hit the ground running, and too often needing time to adjust is characterized as failure for young players. It obscures the longer development process and causes fantasy owners to potentially miss on young breakout talent.

Through his first three starts of the season, Nelson has been brilliant. He has consciously subtracted some velocity from his fastball in favor of a bit more movement and command, which has resulted in a desirable 57.8 percent ground-ball rate. That’s the 13th-best mark among 105 qualified starters through the first three weeks and is one of the reasons why he owns the second-highest GIDP/9 in the league.

What has people talking, though, is his brand new curveball, which has major-league hitters flailing.

Nelson learned his knuckle curve from Brewers farmhand Hiram Burgos and spent the offseason increasing his comfort level with the pitch. His fastball and slider proved effective last season against righties—if one looks at his underlying 4.29 K:BB and .385 BABIP—but his changeup lagged in development and left him without an out-pitch to lefties. His increased walk rate and decreased strikeout rate against lefties highlighted this deficiency in his repertoire.

He hoped the curveball, which can have 12-to-6 drop or more of a 1-to-7 break depending on how he throws it, would give him more success against lefties. In his first outing against the Pirates, he immediately showed off his new toy in the first inning.

Now, that’s an out-pitch. No more simply trying to bury sliders on the back foot or trying to throw the fastball by lefties. Those pitches still remain in the repertoire, but lefties now have to deal with a true hammer. In fact, Jonathan Lucroy mentioned that Nelson’s curveball has been so good this spring that it could quickly become his best offspeed pitch. That’s already happened, too, as he’s throwing it 24.8 percent of the time, more often than his slider. In fact, he’s even throwing his curveball more often than his slider to both lefties and righties, which illustrates his comfort and trust in the pitch.

To illustrate the early returns on his success against lefties, they’re hitting .182/.250/.182 against him through three starts. More importantly, though, Nelson is striking out 29.3 percent of lefties he has faced. That’s 13th-best amongst qualified starters in baseball, which is a massive improvement from a year ago and can be directly tied to his new breaking ball.

The addition of the knuckle curve has understandably resulted in a 13 percentage point drop in his fastball usage, which makes him more unpredictable for hitters. It makes sense that a lower fastball percentage also tends to lead to a higher strikeout rate. Despite the 7.65 K/9—which is essentially the same as his strikeout rate a year ago—his swinging-strike rate indicates the strikeouts could tick up. His 12.2 percent swinging-strike rate is three percent higher than a year ago and ranks 12th in Major League Baseball.

Now, I’m not going to suggest Nelson will sport a sub-2.00 ERA all year. That’s ridiculous. His .222 BABIP should regress, which will result in more baserunners and more runs. He’ll also have to deal with playing teams a second time, once they have an opportunity to scout his new curveball and write the proverbial book on him. Will he be able to adjust to the league’s adjustments? Furthermore, will he be able to maintain the lower walk rate, as he’s actually throwing fewer pitches in the strike zone this year (40.16 percent) than he was a year ago (41.43 percent)?

This isn’t about whether Jimmy Nelson can be one of the best pitchers in the league this season. Fantasy owners who are targeting him on the waiver wire or on the trade market aren’t expecting to pay the price of a future ace, nor are they expecting to acquire an ace. However, could Jimmy Nelson take a step forward this year and be a legitimate number-three starter with some upside? Could he post a 3.50 ERA with above-average strikeout numbers and good-enough control to save the WHIP category?

BUYER’S ADVICE: BUY

When targeting pitchers on the trade market, I prefer ground-ball pitchers who can miss bats. That’s why I like Joe Kelly in deeper leagues right now, for example. Jimmy Nelson is a legit ground-ball pitcher who has increased his ability to miss bats with his curveball. It should also quell the early platoon-split issues. I’m still worried about him pitching from the stretch — the Pittsburgh Pirates ran wild on him in their second shot this month — but the overall tool kit is exciting. His swinging-strike is among the best in the league. As seen above, the new curveball is a hammer to go along with a good slider and a devastating sinker, which gives him the potential for three average-or-better pitches. My advice is to buy here while you have the chance because if he maintains a quality start through the month of May, that price tag will no longer be pretty. In other words, you won’t get a second chance to get in on the ground floor.

Thank you for reading

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alwaxman
4/27
Your story strikes a familiar chord (similar story for me though was grad school) so I totally get the analogy with Jimmy Nelson. Nice on the article best of luck on your PhD.
jnossal
4/27
Ditto. I worked for five years between attending undergraduate and graduate programs and I witnessed the struggles of many students who had jumped straight to grad school.

I think more than a few opted for a graduate program simply because they didn't know what else to do, or they weren't ready to give up the collegiate lifestyle and just saw grad school as an extension of their undergrad experience. Most of those washed out pretty early.

Me, I quit a steady job with a decent salary, moved across the country and began a grad program in a strange city. It was a brutal and harsh experience; I felt like I was being punched in the face on a daily basis. But with no serious safe retreat, I had to stick it out. Five years and a near divorce later, I was banned from a couple of campus offices, but also received my degree.

I frequently get asked if grad school is a good option. I argue vehemently that it is not unless you are willing to give up all control of your life, probably for several years, can endure daily humiliation and are willing to accede to the arbitrary and unreasonable demands your advisor, the department faculty and school administration will put on you, usually for no real reason other than to give you an excuse to quit. If you still want to go after that, just maybe you are committed or crazy enough to have a chance.

Sorry to go off baseball topic, but the writer's grad school experience really resonated.



lipitorkid
4/27
After years of middle school and high school teachers telling my students to start their research papers with a simplistic introductory paragraph with a perfunctory sign-post thesis, my HS students think I'm crazy when I ask them to start their research papers with a story. I'm always on the lookout for great examples of this approach. They are hard to find. Those middle school and HS teachers have done a great job of brainwashing writers.

I've found a perfect example. Thank you.
jimmyb1799
4/27
Thanks for the kind words, y'all.
timjrohr
4/28
Aaand he gets lit on fire tonight. Oh well.
lipitorkid
4/28
Yeah I actually came back to say "jinx." Just brutal today. Baserunners seem to really rattle his cage.
Dannogil1
4/28
Yeah - Jimmy was not in form tonight. But also, everything including his infield, went against him, including three plays in the 2nd inning that most def could have had a better outcome. By the 3rd, I think he was too frustrated.
Loved the article, and though I didn't drop out of grad school, I was in my early 30s before changing careers, which made it a lot less daunting.