Niemann Standing Tall with Rays
Gail Burton/ AP
To say that Tampa Bay Rays starter Jeff Niemann fits that mold of the strong, silent type would be an understatement. He has quietly amassed a perfect 5-0 record so far in 2010 and has been able to slip silently under the MLB radar. But we all know within the Rays Republic circles that the quiet and laid-back Texan harnesses a fire and a drive within him to take him towards the top of the MLB pitching ranks. Not many people know that Niemann was chasing another entry into Rays club history last night.
Niemann came into last night’s contest with two of the last three Rays complete game shutouts. And Neimann would have become the Rays All Time leader in that category if White Sox Mark Teahen had not crashed his silent party with an eighth inning blast to Rightfield.
Niemann has been pitching in a state of quiet and not garnering unneeded attention since the Rays drafted him fourth overall in the 2004 First Year MLB Draft out of college baseball powerhouse Rice. Surprising enough, Niemann was one of three Rice pitchers selected on that day sandwiched between teammates Phillip Humber, selected by the New York Mets (third pick) and Wade Townsend, selected by the Baltimore Orioles ( eighth pick). Out of the three Rice Owls selected, Niemann is the only member of that group to still go to the mound every fifth day in the MLB.
Townsend has suffered numerous pitching ailments and recently retired for the second time after trying another comeback attempt , while Humber is currently in the minors (Triple-A Omaha) with the Kansas City Royals.
Niemann has silently carved out a healthy and viable niche for himself in Tampa Bay that has placed him solidly in the number three spot in the Rays rotation. All of this after a quiet 2009 MLB rookie season that boosted his credentials tri-fold, but left a few unique American League pitching feats under the radar outside of Tampa Bay. Surprisingly, Niemann, who lead all American League rookie pitchers last season in winning percentage (.684), ERA (3.94), complete games (2), shutouts (2). He also posted a major league rookie high 180.2 innings last season for the Rays while posting a impressive 13-6 mark.
Those 13 wins also put Niemann is an exclusive club with several other greats Rays pitchers just one win shy of the Rays club record held by Rolando Arrojo set back in 1998. But it could have easily been Niemann’s name printed in the Rays media guide at that spot. Five times in 2009 Niemann exited the game in line for the Rays victory but saw the Rays Bullpen fail to hold the lead and the win for him.
Without a great deal of fanfare, Niemann led the Rays pitching staff in wins and ERA, becoming the first rookie to lead a defending AL champion in those two categories since former New York Yankee Bob Grim in 1954. Niemann also posted the fifth best winning percentage all time by a AL rookie with 30 or more starts. Her also shattered Rays teammate James Shield’s club winning percentage record (.636) that he set in 2008. But then again so many thing go under the radar with the tall, silent Texan.
Who knew that only 4 other AL rookies in the 2000′s matched Niemanns numbers in ERA, innings and wins: Baltimore Oriole Rodrigo Lopez (2002), Detroit Tiger Justin Verlander (2006) Toronto Blue Jay Gustavo Chacin (2005) and Atlanta Brave Jair Jurrjens (2008). But then again, you have come to expect Niemann not to blow his own horn. So I guess it is up to me then. In 2009, Niemann went 57 consecutive innings without giving up a Home Run, and posted the best rookie total and sixth best mark in the AL in that category. Niemann also worked the most innings (15.1 innings) in 2009 of any pitcher against the MLB’s Home Run team leaders, the New York Yankees without giving up a single long shot to the Bronx Bombers.
Silently and quietly Niemann has held opponents leading off an inning with a Major League low .240 average in 2009. But that has been Niemann’s motive operandi ever since he finally overcame his injury woes to go a combined 44-19 in his last 97 career starts (majors and minor leagues). And being a forgotten piece of the overall puzzle can sometimes be a blessing in disguise. With other members of the Rays rotation getting the headlines and the early season accolades, Niemann has been able to post the second best ERA (2.37) in the majors this season. Niemann has also silently posted the fifth best Opponent’s Batting average ( .204) and second best pitches per inning (13.83) in the Major Leagues.
Niemann has proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that his past injury concerns and aliments are behind him. His commitment and determination to lead by silent example will be a key part of the Rays overall success in 2010. If Niemann can again post 13 + wins this season, it will put the Rays in a great position to battle for a 2010 Playoff berth. His stamina and endurance has increased throughout his career and will provide a great foundation and catalyst as the Rays reach farther into this season.
Being one of the tallest member within the MLB ranks has its drawbacks at times, but standing tall in the middle of this Rays rotation is just the place for Niemann. And on the mound, he lets his pitching do all the talking.