- Rating: 5.25
- 2023 stats: 29 G, 144.0 IP, 5.31 ERA, 5.07 FIP, 1.424 WHIP, 96:46 K/BB, 0.0 bWAR
- Date of birth: February 1, 1998
- 2023 salary: major-league minimum
- 2024 status: On 40-man roster, pre-arbitration, three options remaining.
It has been rather confusing that the D-backs roster for much of the year featured two young pitchers with the name of “Nelson”. At least when we had two Kelly’s on the roster, it was generally clear from the context which one was the topic. Pretty much whenever I heard anything about either of the Nelsons, I had to pause for a moment and figure out which one was being discussed. I lost count of the number of times I ended up going, “No, hang on - that’s the other one.” In the end, I had to come up with an aide-memoire: “R is for Ryne, the Rightie who is in the Rotation.” At least if he goes to the bullpen, I would just need to change the last word to be “Relief”, and it would still be correct.
Ryne had made quite the impression with his 2022 debut. In his first major-league game, he threw seven shutout innings against the Padres. Nelson was only the second pitcher ever to debut that way, with 7+ strikeouts and no walks. He followed it up with six more zeroes against the Dodgers, and ended the year with a 1.47 ERA across 18.1 innings. Of course, that was never going to be sustainable. Even though it was only across a trio of starts, the FIP of 3.77 for him last year suggested that regression was potentially going to be a harsh beast for Ryne to face. But hopes were high. Leith Kaw had Ryne ranked as high as Arizona’s #5 prospect at the start of the year, and Michael had him at #6, saying:
With the need for the team to shore up the bullpen sooner rather than later, 2023 could be a big year to determine his long term fit with the organization. They’ll need to decided if he’s more valuable to the club as a #4/5 starter or as a multi-inning weapon in the back-end of the bullpen. Given that his stuff begins to fall off around 50 pitches, he may be a candidate to move to the bullpen in a high leverage role as opposed to the “Five and Dive” starter... If he’s able to maintain his best stuff for more than 50-60 pitches, he’s more valuable to the D-backs as a #3/4 starter than as a back-end of the bullpen weapon. He has starter stuff, so they should try to see if they can get more out of him.
In spring, Nelson was part of the battle for the fifth spot in the rotation, behind Zac Gallen, Merrill Kelly, Zach Davies and Madison Bumgarner. He eventually beat out Drey Jameson, classmate in the 2019 draft, despite a 7.53 ERA and 1.95 WHIP in Cactus League outings. Drey’s development had paralleled Nelson, right down to also throwing seven shutout innings in his debut against San Diego in Sep 2022. The two has been friends, and that wouldn’t change with Nelson’s victory. Ryne said, “We always knew at some point we were going to be fighting each other, but remain friends through the whole thing. We’re always going to be friends. Stuff like that doesn’t get in the way of it. If anything it makes us better.”
There was a fascinating article in the Arizona Republic during the first month of the season, talking about Nelson’s fastball, and how its effectiveness exceeds its velocity [it also gives quite a lot of insight into why Nelson won the spring battle over Jameson]. There are two particular attributes which acts as a force multiplier on his 93.7 mph fastball: “He gets excellent extension, meaning he releases the ball closer to home plate than average, making it appear faster to hitters. And he gets approximately 20 inches of induced vertical break — or ‘hop’. In other words, his fastball falls 20 fewer inches than it would without any spin. League average is between 16 and 17 inches.”
However, this only sporadically turned into success in the majors this year. Much was made of Zac Gallen’s home/road splits, but Nelson’s numbers were even more dramatic. By Game Score, every one of his nine best starts in 2023 came away from Chase Field: overall, he was 6-3 with a 3.46 ERA. But at home, Ryne was 2-5 with an staggering 8.25 ERA, and opposing hitters at Chase teed off him to a line of .356/.407/.636. That’s a 1.042 OPS, 334 points higher than the road one. Put another way, in Phoenix he turned batters into better than Aaron Judge. Everywhere else, they became Geraldo Perdomo. It was something the team seemed to realize and work around: after mid-June, he made only four starts at home.
Part of that was a spell in the minor leagues. He was sent down to Triple-A on August 13th, specifically so he could work on his slider there - though there had also been a suspicion Ryne was tipping his pitches. Nelson returned on September 6 after four starts for the Aces, pitching coach Brent Strom saying, “From the reports, it is a little bit harder, he’s locating it more, hasn’t made as many mistakes with it.” But the three starts which followed were underwhelming, Nelson allowing nine earned runs in 13.1 innings, with a K:BB ratio of only 9:7. He lost his rotation spot down the stretch, throwing the last pitch by a Diamondback in the regular season, the 8-1 loss to Houston.
Perhaps surprisingly, he was on the Arizona post-season roster, though saw very limited action until the World Series, throwing just one inning through the first 12 games, but giving up seven hits in that time. He did toss 5.1 innings of one-run ball in Game 4 against Texas, This was yeoman’s work in a mop-up role, coming in to the fourth with the score already 10-1 to the Rangers, after the decision - ill-advised in hindsight - by the D-backs to go with a bullpen game. That good final outing does give Nelson something on which he can hopefully build over the winter, and into spring.
Two of the starting pitchers above Nelson in the Opening Day Rotation this year have gone: Davies and Bumgarner. But they have likely been replaced, by Brandon Pfaadt and Eduardo Rodriguez. So it’s likely that Ryne is going to find himself in the same situation he was in last spring: battling for the fifth spot in the rotation. It won’t be against Jameson though, his friend having opted to have Tommy John surgery. Tommy Henry is probably going to be the main candidate, the left-hander having made 16 starts and delivered a better ERA than Nelson (although their FIPs were quite similar). Whether the team can figure out what Ryne’s issue is at Chase, may well be a factor in the decision.