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Catching up with Brewers Prospect Jimmy Nelson: A Pre-Spring Training Interview
For a minor league ballplayer, the journey to the promised land — breaking through to and remaining at the major-league level — is one filled with highs and lows, celebration and criticism, buildup and recession, and the like.
To be sure, it is an unique process very few are able to participate in.
Yet for as truly unique as the journey undoubtedly is, the values learned and virtues acquired along the way often parallel those in mainstream society: Hard work, determination and consistency eventually lead to success.
These are just some of the values that Jimmy Nelson holds dear to him both on and off the mound.
Embarking on his fourth season as a valued pitching prospect in the Milwaukee Brewers minor league system, Nelson, 23, has become a standout prospect in the Brewers minor league organization since being drafted by the club in 2010.
He made his way to double-A ball midway through last season, going 2-4 with a 3.91 ERA and 1.54 WHIP while striking out nearly a batter per inning. Before that, he spent time with the organization’s rookie club in Helena, Mon., low-A team in Appleton, Wis., and high-A squad in Brevard, Fla.
Nelson this fall also participated in Major League Baseball’s Arizona Fall League, where he learned from new coaches and gained valuable experience against a handful of baseball’s top minor league prospects.
This year, the 6’6″, 240-pound Niceville, Fla., native is setting his expectations high, aiming to impress the coaching staff at spring training en route to hopefully making his debut with the Brewers by season’s end. And wouldn’t you know, he carries with him those same aforementioned virtues everyday, both on and off the mound.
I had the opportunity to catch up with Nelson earlier this week. Here is the full transcript of our conversation.
AD: How’s your offseason been, Jimmy?
JN: It’s been going very well. I’ve been working out at a place near Houston since November, and just getting ready for spring training.
AD: What’s a typical workout day for you?
JN: We get up and stretch around 10:00 A.M. and do our warm-up stuff and stretch out our shoulders. Then, we throw and lift, do our run, swim, do yoga. After that, you get to do whatever you want.
AD: Last year you got a call-up to double-A ball around mid-season. What was the transition like? Anything noticeable?
JN: Oh, man. That was definitely the biggest jump in my opinion. Going from rookie ball to low-A, and then low-A to high-A, things are relatively the same as far as competition.
Going to double-A, it’s like night and day. Hitters are much more patient, they know the strike-zone very well and the [strike] zone is a lot tighter. You’ve got guys that are older and know the game better, and just a lot of good players and prospects. You definitely need to step up your game and learn how to get guys out in different ways.
AD: Could you explain what you mean by “getting guys out in different ways” a bit more?
JN: Pitch sequences, learning the hitters better, adjusting to the hitter by what they’re giving you and what their swing. It’s all stuff that you and your catcher work on. At that level, catchers can tell by a hitter’s stance or swing what pitch you need to throw in certain situations.
AD: You went on the disabled list for a while last year. What exactly happened?
JN: When I was with Huntsville, I had three or four starts and then went on the disabled list for a month, and then I had three or four starts after that. But when I went on the DL I had shoulder fatigue and inflammation, so that needed some time so I could get where I wasn’t pitching through pain.
AD: What was the reason for the fatigue?
JN: It’s just one of those things. After throwing a lot of pitches and a lot of innings over the course of not just that season, but over previous seasons. That’s just something you try to prevent by getting in good shape and doing all of your shoulder exercises. Even if something does happen, it’s out of your control. Sometimes that stuff just happens.
AD: Did you notice any difference from the way you pitched before you went on the DL to after? Or even from high-A to double-A ball?
JN: Not really. As a pitcher, you want to pitch to your strengths. It’s not like I’m trying to trick guys out there. My game plan from high-A to double-A was pretty much the same. You can’t try to pitch to a hitter’s weaknesses, you have to pitch to your strengths. That’s one thing that the pitching coaches taught me. You just try to attack guys; getting that first-pitch strike, and getting ahead in the count. The counts are much more important at the higher levels.
AD: So there is a big difference in the umpires’ strike zone, then?
JN: Definitely. You can tell it’s tighter once you get to double-A. But, it’s going to be tight in the big leagues, so you’ve got to learn somewhere.
AD: I understand you contributed to a combined no-hitter on August 2. What was that experience like?
JN: Yeah, it was one of my first starts off the DL. That was pretty cool. Truthfully, I didn’t even realize it was a no-hitter because I had walked a few guys, so I was a bit disappointed in myself. I didn’t even know it until I had come back from the dugout. I looked up at the scoreboard in the seventh or eight inning and there were no hits.
AD: Any odd plays that you remember from that game?
JN: I guy hit a hard ground-ball back at me and I did this jump-kick thing, trying to stop it. The ball went up in the air and landed on the first-base line and our catcher [Anderson] De La Rosa bare-handed it and threw it side-arm to get the guy out. It was pretty incredible.
AD: Any double-A players you pitched against that stood out to you?
JN: There’s so many. Stefen Romero, for some reason, I feel like it’s the hardest thing in the world to get that kid out. The lineups are pretty solid all the way through, though. There aren’t really any holes.
AD: How’s the hitting been for you?
JN: I mean, we don’t do it very often, but in spring training we’ll work on bunting and situational stuff like that. But I’m pretty confident in doing what I need to do in certain situations. I’m not going to hit the ball all over the field, though. I haven’t done that since I was 15.
AD: Looking ahead to 2013, what is one thing you might need to improve on?
JN: I can give you two words for that: strikes and consistency. I showed in high-A Brevard [County] that I can say in the strike zone for a whole game and do that for several outings. But then I also showed in double-A that I wasn’t as consistent as I was in high-A. I know my stuff is there, I just have to be consistent in the zone, attack it and get ahead of hitters. Once I can do that from start-to-start, then I think that’s when I’ll take that next step.
AD: How has the changeup worked for you?
JN: It’s gotten a lot better, especially in double-A. I didn’t have as much of my fastball as I did the first half of the season, and in double-A guys will lay off the high fastball. My changeup has definitely come to strides, though. I consider it a serious weapon.
AD: Are sinker and slider still your biggest strengths?
JN: Yeah, definitely. But I want to get where I can see all four pitches as my strengths, and have as much confidence in any one of them to get a hitter out.
AD: You took part in the Arizona Fall League his past fall. What was that experience like for you?
JN: That was a really cool experience. I got to meet a bunch of players from different organizations, some from the [double-A] Southern League, and then I got to meet some of the best players in the minors. Throwing against that type of quality players was a great experience.
Coming into it, all the coaches from all the different organizations already know what you need to work on, and that’s part of being a professional as far as knowing what you need to work on. It was a bit of a laid-back atmosphere, especially at the end of a long season.
AD: You got to play with other Brewers prospects such as Johnny Hellweg during your stay. What’s the scouting report on him?
JN: He’s a tall guy. Almost like the Brewers putting together a basketball team — we’ve got a lot of big guys. He’s got kind of a three-quarters arm slot, very easy and smooth delivery, can sit up in the mid-90s easily, definitely got some good movement on his fastball and a good breaking ball. I’m excited to see how he does.
AD: I know you had a chance to play with Jean Segura in double-A ball after he came over from the [Zack] Greinke trade. What’s he like in the clubhouse?
JN: He’s a good guy. Full of energy. From day one it seemed like he’d been one of the guys for a long time. Very laid-back guy. Brought a lot of energy to the clubhouse. It was fun to have him around.
AD: What’s your status for spring training?
JN: I’m not sure yet. I don’t know the exact date I’m supposed to report. They just told me that I’m coming early, so I’m just assuming I’ll report the second week in February. Whether I go to the big-league camp yet I’m not sure.
AD: What are some of your goals for 2013?
JN: Making it to the big leagues and help win at that level. Other than that, just keep improving my pitches and command. Getting ahead of guys, and getting guys out with three pitches or less. I learned a lot last year, so I’m just looking to improve on that, really. Staying consistent, too. I stayed consistent for half the year last year, so now I’m trying to do that for the whole year this year.
AD: You’re now two years removed from your stay in low-A Appleton. Do you have any advice for players in the lower levels of the minors?
JN: I mean, at those levels, it’s a big transition phase. You’re learning about professional life and new work habits that you have to develop as far as getting your work in and getting to the field early. You have to learn your own routine and stick to it. It’s really just a big chess game for pitchers and hitters.
AD: Baseball America just released their top 10 Brewers farmhand rankings for 2013, and you placed No. 5. Does that affect you at all?
JN: No, not at all. It has no say in how I act or what I think. I mean, it’s very nice to be recognized, and I appreciate it greatly. But as far as it comes to us getting our work in and doing what he have to do, it’s not going to change anything. You have to take that stuff with a grain of salt. Baseball is a crazy game. You can be rated high one year and low the next, so you have to learn how to deal with it. Of course, you’d much rather deal with the highs, but either way you still have to stick to your process and keep your mind on things you can control.
AD: Do you think that might actually get the better of some players?
JN: I don’t think so. Not at the professional level, because everybody realizes the ultimate goal of contributing at the big-league level, whether that’s at single-A or triple-A ball. I think however you get there, whether you’re a prospect or not a prospect, it doesn’t matter. I’ve seen plenty of guys who weren’t ranked a prospect play out of their minds, and I’ve seen guys ranked a prospect struggle. It’s a two-way street, really.
AD: I appreciate the time, Jimmy. Good luck with spring training. Hope to talk with you again soon.
JN: No problem. I appreciate it.
Designated to Milwaukee’s rookie club in Helena later that season, Nelson would go 2-0, posting a 3.71 ERA with 33 strikeouts in 26.2 innings pitching in just his first minor league season. His performance would be enough for Baseball America to rank the power right-hander as the Brewers’ eighth overall prospect heading into the 2011 season.
I was fortunate enough to speak with Nelson on a number of different topics, ranging from his draft-day experiences to his favorite food. The following conversation contains everything Brewers fans need to know about the youngster.
Jimmy Nelson’s Favorites
AD: If you had to choose, what is your favorite movie of all-time?
JN: Well, Forest Gump is a good one. Inception is another one of my favorites.
AD: Favorite food?
JN: Any kind of seafood, really. I’m a big pasta fan, too.
AD: Alright, last one: do you have a favorite quote that you base your game off of?
JN: Not really. I have a bunch of favorite sayings I base my game off of, but, there’s not really one quote that I really focus on.
Jimmy Nelson: Growing Up
AD: What influence did growing up in Niceville, Florida have on your love for the game of baseball?
JN: Its a very baseball-rich area. There’s a lot of talent that comes out of that area, and there’s also a lot of really good coaches, which I think really helped me a lot growing up. I was always on pretty good teams, which helped make my a lot better and gave me that opportunity to get a college scholarship.
AD: Did you always want to be a pitcher?
JN: I mean, I did play a little bit of first [base] too, but when I was a kid I always threw. I was always one of the harder throwers in my age group. When you’re a tall, big kid, you tend to get funneled into that position as a pitcher whenever you’re big and you throw hard.
AD: How was your hitting?
JN: Oh, I don’t know. The last time I hit was in my freshman year of high school. We had designated hitters, so there wasn’t really much of a need. I wasn’t terrible, though.
AD: I understand you were actually drafted by the Cincinnati Reds back in 2007, but did not sign. Why?
JN: Yeah they drafted me right out of high school. It wasn’t enough money for me to sign, and it wasn’t enough money to skip college. I mean, I wanted to go to college to get a lot better to mature and grow into my body. I felt like I could get more after I’d proven myself. I was really excited about going to Alabama, too. They have a great staff and great facility and everything like that.
AD: How successful was the team when you were playing?
JN: We were always good. We were always the team that doesn’t have that many big-name players, but we always end up scrapping it out and fought until the end. We won a lot more games than we were expected to. We made it to regionals every year I was there, and then we made it to the super-regionals my junior year.
Jimmy Nelson: The 2010 Draft
AD: Back at the 2010 Draft, who was the first person to call you to let you know you’d been selected by the Milwaukee Brewers?
JN: I mean, the area scout called me that morning of the draft and said, “if we take you in this round will you sign for this much?” All I said to him was yes and that was pretty much the extent of my conversation. Before the Brewers came around I knew there were some other teams that were interested in me and passed me up.
I was 99 percent sure the Brewers were going to draft me, though. I was happy about it. It’s one of the best times of a prospect’s life. Just going through that process is very exciting and it’s just the beginning, really.
AD: Give us a breakdown on the pitches you throw.
JN: Well, I throw a sinker and a four-seam fastball, and I’m anywhere from 93-95 mph.
I’m primarily throwing sinkers, but I also have my slider — which has gotten a lot better. I went anywhere from 84 mph in college to 88-86 mph now. I’ve really developed my change-up this year, and that was probably one of the big points of this whole season. It’s gotten a whole lot better.
AD: So, developing your change-up has been the only real stress-point from the coaches of late?
JN: Yeah. Stuff-wise we’ve been working with the change-up because my other three pitches are pretty good. You know, the change-up is just a “feel” pitch and for a power-pitcher, that can be pretty hard to do.
AD: If you had to choose one word to describe your style of play on the mound, what would it be?
JN: Competitive. I wanted to say “intense”, but I’ll say competitive.
AD: Now, obviously scouts and “experts” around the country like what they see in you. Do you pay attention to the prospect rankings?
JN: Yeah, I mean, I appreciate it, but, you really can’t pay attention to that kind of stuff. We really try to shy away from that kind of stuff. We don’t need any distractions. I mean, we hear about it and just because we’re a rated prospect doesn’t make us any more likely to make it to the big-leagues than anybody else in the system. It’s just one of those things you know about, but we just try to ignore it.
AD: What are your expectations heading into next season? Do you know where you’re going to start?
JN: No, not really. No one really knows where they’re going to start. I mean, hopefully I’m able to get to double-A at some point this year. But, you never know what can happen. I mean, there’s some systems that guys go from single-A to the big leagues in one year. Its all just up to me to perform and do what I can, really.
AD: What are your career goals?
JN: I mean, of course I want to be in the big leagues as long as I can. I want to be able to help whatever team I’m with. Obviously, I want to win a World Series. Of course, everyone wants to have a 10-year big-league career, and every pitcher wants to win a Cy Young [award]. But if you ask anybody, getting to the big-leagues and staying there is the goal. Getting there is just half the battle, staying there is ultimately what I want to do. You know, just having a good career and being able to help people any way I can, and help the team as much as possible, really.
AD: Thanks for the insight, Jimmy. I really appreciate it.
JN: No problem, man. Anytime.
Alec Dopp covers the Milwaukee Brewers as a featured columnist on Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @alecdopp.