- Rating: 6.65
- 2022 stats: 3 G, 18.1 IP, 1.47 ERA, 3.77 FIP, 0.818 WHIP, 16:6 SO/BB, 278 ERA+, 0.8 bWAR
- Date of birth: February 1, 1998 (24 years old)
- 2022 earnings: League minimum
- 2023 status: On 40-man roster, pre-arbitration, and contract tendered.
2022 in review
There have not been many times in the history of these reviews, that a player who appeared in just three games for the Diamondbacks, made it into the top ten ranking at the end of the year. But that goes to show what a tremendous impact Nelson had, despite not making his Diamondbacks and major-league debut until September 5. [He’s not even the highest-ranked or latest arrival, but we’ll get to that later in the week...] His arrival shouldn’t have come as a complete surprise to anyone who was paying attention, since Nelson was a consensus top ten prospect for Arizona before the season, generally hovering somewhere around #5-6.
What’s unusual is that Nelson was mostly a reliever in college, making only five starts over his three years at the University or Oregon, before being drafted by Arizona in the second round of the 2019 draft. He transitioned to a starter in his first pro season at Hillsboro, and has worked exclusively in the rotation ever since. He blossomed in 2021, after reworking his mechanics and also having eye surgery, when his 163 Ks were fourth-most by any minor-league pitcher. He needed only 116.1 innings to get them, a performance which put him firmly on the radar as an up-and-coming pitcher.
Before this year, Fangraphs spoke warmly of his high heat, calling his fastball there “almost impossible to hit due to its riding life.” Writing here, Michael McDermott had him as the team’s #5 prospect, saying Nelson “relies on a mid 90s fastball that is very effective up in the zone, two breaking balls, and a splitter-like change.” Michael projected Nelson as a #3 starter, with the possibility to become a #2 if he could continue to improve his command, and predicted him joining the major-league rotation “no later than August 1st.” It took a little longer than that in the end, but he got there in the end.
First, Nelson had to survive in Reno. As Johnny Cash once sung, “I sent a pitcher to Reno, just to watch him die.” We’ve often discussed how Reno can cause us to over-estimate the talent of our hitters there. Ryne’s numbers might be a case of the reverse being true, because his stat line for the Aces was less then whelming. In 26 starts, he had a 5.43 ERA, which was almost exactly in line with Pacific Coast League average (5.48), and hardly demanded a call-up. However, I recall either Torey Lovullo or Mike Hazen - I can’t find the quote - saying that they did not take particular note of pitchers’ numbers there, putting more faith in the eye test on their prospects there.
Which is how Ryne Nelson came to be a call-up, making his debut on September 5 against a stacked Padres line-up in San Diego (above). He blanked them over seven innings. allowing four hits and no walks with seven strikeouts. This was almost unprecedented. Only one previous pitcher, the Pirates Nick Kingham started his MLB career with seven or more shutout innings, with 7+ K’s and no walks. Remarkably, Nelson then followed it up a week later, by blanking the similarly stacked Dodgers line-up for six innings, on two hits and two walks with six strikeouts. No pitcher has started with consecutive games of 6+ innings while allowing no runs and striking out a batter per inning or better, since Carlos Hernandez on the 2001 Astros.
It couldn’t last forever, of course, and Nelson’s scoreless streak have to a slightly unceremonious end in this third outing. It was also against the Padres, and they seem to have learned from their first experience. He still pitching into the sixth inning, but Nelson was tagged for four runs (one unearned) over 5.1 innings, and walked more (4) than he struck out (3). It is possible he was not at 100%. For that was Ryne’s final outing of the season, as he went onto the injured list a couple of days later, with inflammation in his right shoulder. There’s no indication this was anything beyond the team being cautious, Nelson having thrown a total of 154.1 innings, 38 more than his previous season high.
“Everything he could have done, he did perfectly. He was very impressive. We want him to have a healthy offseason and at some point transition into getting himself ready for next season and coming here and competing for a job.”
— Torey Lovullo
With the departure of Zach Davies, there appear to be two spots open in the 2023 D-backs’ rotation. Together with fellow September call-up Drew Jameson, Nelson is in possession of a place for now. Obvious caveat: this considers only starters used in 2022. Things may change between now and Opening Day, with the team potentially adding experience, and Brandon Pfaadt also in the running. If that happens, Nelson could end up competing with Jameson, although rotations being what they are, both seem very likely to get starts. Worth noting: they’re the hardest throwing starters used by Arizona in 2022: Nelson averaged 94.9 mph and Jameson 95.3. This seems to fit the team pivoting towards “swing and miss” stuff. They led starters in swinging strike rate too, with almost identical figures (11.3% and 11.4%).
As Michael recently noted, his velocity does seem to drop off later in the game. Is this a result of him having only been a starter for three years? Would it be better for Nelson perhaps to shift to the bullpen? Or can he work around the drop in velocity, by mixing in his other pitches more, as the game progresses? Answering these questions will determine his long-term role. However, the small sample size of three games in the majors, certainly did little to suggest he should not be given every opportunity to succeed as a starter, and that’s where he will be, until proven otherwise.