Tall Texan rising to the Occasion
Brian Blano / AP
A lot has been written lately in the Tampa Bay community on Rays starting pitcher Jeff Niemann, but most of those humor-based postings have to do with the many different type of animals both alive and cartoonish that have been attributed to the 6′ 9″ pitcher. No one has written about the trails and tribulations that followed this tall Texan and why the Rays had such faith in him in fourth pick in the 2004 draft. Sure he might still get those animal references even after he could hit that magical 15-win plateau that has eluded countless Rays pitchers in the past.
The guy who has been compared to a tall lanky giraffe, the lovable Sesame Street character Big Bird ( minus the yellow skin) might just have more animal references to show for his success by the end of the season. Why not compare him to a phoenix, who rises from the ashes and takes to the sky in victory. That image actually might fit the Texan better than a lot of the other characters associated with him right now.
Success has not always been right at Niemann’s feet during his adventure to become the team leader with wins on the Rays staff. There have been times where the dream might have seemed dead and buried, or that to even step onto a Major League ballpark might be a distant dream. People always chat about the positives in a person’s climb to the top, but forget to show the perils and the strides made to even finally take that wind-up and throw to the plate for the first time in the MLB. Sometimes the story we see just starts a bit later than when the player actually began their trek.
Sure the Rays thought enough of him in 2004 to gamble their fourth pick that year. Amazingly, the Rice University graduate was the second of three of his teammates selected in the first eight picks of the draft. He was sandwiched between teammates Phillip Humber selected by the NY Mets with the third selection,and Wade Townsend selected eighth by the Baltimore Orioles. Niemann had posted a 28-4 record at Rice and looked like a solid selection for the Rays that season.
His 28-4 record was a bit deceiving to the eye because he lost three of those games in his junior year after coming back from off season arthroscopic surgery on his right elbow. But even in his limited duty that season he went 6-3 with 94 strikeouts in 80 innings. To add insult to injury, he also pulled his groin muscle during this season to complicate his throwing style. And this all followed a sophomore year where he went 17-0 and tied an NCAA record for the most wins in an undefeated season. He was a first team All-American, on the NCAA National Championship team with the Owls.
All this added success followed a high school career where no MLB team even though enough of his baseball skills to draft him in the later rounds. He went totally undrafted and did not garner any interest from the MLB community. So off he went to Rice and in the summer of his sophomore season he elected to play in the renowned Cape Cod League for Harwich Mariners where he went 2-0 and did not allow an earned run in 19.1 innings of work that summer.
He was even asked to join USA Baseball National Team, but elected to venture into the New England landscape to participate in the Cape Cod adventure instead. This followed the year where the Niemann and the Owls had a huge amount of success and garnered a lot of attention. But it would be two years before Niemann would sign his first MLB contract, and a huge 5-year struggle before he felt accepted on the same fields as some of his teammates.
Niemann made no bones about the fact he wanted to play baseball for the Rays. He ended up signing within 204 days after he was drafted, and did not throw a single pitch that summer while volunteering for his Rice Baseball coach’s summer youth camp. But right away the press anointed Niemann as the best prospect in the Rays organization, which meant the trail would be littered now with abnormal expectations and extreme pressures to excel.
Niemann quickly moved up the Rays Minor League system his first season finally stopping at the Double-A level with the Montgomery Biscuits for the final three weeks of the 2005 season. He had made his professional debut earlier in the season while at Visalia before finally coming to the Alabama team. He threw 11 starts between the two clubs going a combined 0-2 with a 4.11 ERA and 48 strikeouts in 30.2 innings. But what might have sent up some smoke signals to the Rays medical staff was his time from June 12-August 2nd where he was on the DL for right shoulder inflammation.
His DL stint now behind him, Niemann threw three starts the rest of the season for the Biscuits totaling 7.2 innings while giving up 3 hits, 3 runs and posting 12 strikeouts. It was not a hugely productive season because of the injury, but Neimann again showed he had the internal make-up to strive at this level. His injury in June did produce some extra anxious moments for Niemann in the off-season as he had right shoulder surgery to shave the joint between his collarbone and shoulder.
It was starting to look like the Tall Texan might have been used too much in college, and that his stamina and health might have accelerated his injury situation. He ended up back in St. Petersburg, Florida at the Rays minor league complex for an extended stay after Spring Training and finally made his Biscuit return on June 19, 2006. He ended up making 14 starts that season, and on a positive note, he surrendered 3 earned runs or less in 12 of those games. He did drop his first four starts before going 5-1 with a 1.75 ERA the rest of the season.
But the best of yet to come for Niemann that season as he threw a one-hitter against the Jacksonville Suns during a 7-inning start on July 24th. He also played a important part in the Biscuits playoff run when he made two starts in that Championship run going 1-0 with 2.92 ERA and 14 strikeouts. He even started Game 1 of the series against the Suns and came away with a 3-1 victory. After the season he was again selected as the top prospect in the Rays system by Baseball America.
In 2007, he started the season with the Triple-A Durham Bulls and was selected to play in the 2007 Futures game at the All Star game. That season he did stay pretty much injury free until he suffered a bout with shoulder fatigue in August. But while with the Bulls, he posted 12 wins that season, which was the third best win total in the International League. He posted a 123 strikeout total for the year, and was ninth in the IL in ERA with a 3.96 mark. Along with teammates JP Howell, Mitch Talbot, the three helped lead the IL in strikeouts and ERA that season.
And that was the breakout season he had been waiting for since 2005. He also went 2-0 in two Playoff starts with wins over Toledo and Richmond. He also ended the regular season with a nice
peak going 8-2 over his final 13 starts with a 3.57 ERA. And for the first time since he was with the Rays, he was not the top prospect in their farm system. This year Baseball America considered him the tenth best prospect in the Rays system. The fall from grace might have had more to do with his injury history than his production, but it did take the pressure off him to pitch his game in 2008.
Lost in the translation by Baseball America’s ranking was the fact Niemann had gone 30-12 with a respectable 3.32 ERA in his last 63 starts prior to the 2008 season. Because of a streak of injuries in the Rays camp during Spring Training, Niemann got two starts in April, but not before he also was the Bulls Opening Day starter in Durham before the Rays recalled him after a Matt Garza injury on April 9th. He won his Major League debut four days later against the Orioles giving up only a homer to Nick Markakis while scattering 6 hits in the game.
He became the first Rays pitcher since Scott Kazmir to win his debut, and the seventh pitcher overall in team history. He did show a bit of nerves in that game throwing 28 pitches in the first inning before finally settling down and tossing 65 the rest of the game. In his second start against the Chicago White Sox, Niemann got blown out by the Sox in a eight run 3.1 inning start. He suffered the loss in that game and was optioned to Durham on April 21st.
He did not let the last loss at the Major League level get to him as he went 9-5 in 24 starts with the Bulls posting a 3.59 ERA, and his .207 Opponents Batting Average was the seventh best among all minor leaguers. He even held right-handed hitters to a paltry .162 average that season. His totals ranked among the leaders in the International League in ERA (3.59) and his 128 strikeouts were the fifth best in the IL that season. And to put some icing on the cake he threw two complete games that season, which tied him for the top spot in the I.L.
He also recorded double digit strikeouts three times during the season, and once during the playoffs. He did make some noise in the post season as he made two starts and pitched an IL-high 14.2 innings and struck out 19 hitters, which was second in the league to Phil Hughes of the Scranton Yankees. He also tossed a remarkable game during the possible elimination game against the Louisville Bats going 8 innings while giving up only 1 run and two huts while striking out 11 that night.
After the Bulls loss to Scranton-Wilkes-Barre Yankees for the Governor’s Cup, the Rays recalled Niemann and he made three relief appearances in September. On September 19 against the Minnesota Twins he came in for his first relief appearance since 2005 when he was with the Montgomery team. During that stretch he earned his first relief win and second career victory on September 23rd in a game in Baltimore. After that magical 2008 season he volunteered his services in hurricane ravished Surfside, Texas where his family used to spend summer vacations.
That brings us to the 2009 season. The book is still being written on the successes and the accomplishments of Niemann this year. But since that first start shelling in Baltimore, the Rays rookie pitcher has made huge strides and changes to his pitching demeanor and the success is showing now for the Texan. With his complete game shutout last night against the Oakland A’s, Niemann is no longer being viewed as a weak addition to this rotation. Right now he is one of the most consistent members of this young Rays staff.
I guess I am going to have a wait a bit before I post again on the final triumphs and statistics of Niemann in 2009. But you can bet the Toys R Us giraffe references and the Big Bird jokes will fly for the rest of the season. That is until the rest of the Rays Republic can lean back and look up into the tall Texans eyes and see he is only Jeff Niemann, Rays starter and only one of six active pitchers 6’9″ or taller in the MLB. And please, do not ask him how the weather is up there? Please.