Tampa Bay Rays
Niemann stands tall in middle of Rays' rotation
PORT CHARLOTTE - The birthday boy turned 28 on Monday, not that anyone noticed. "Nothing," Jeff Niemann said. "Not even a text." But Niemann did pitch a perfect inning against the Pirates in what became a 6-5 loss at Charlotte Sports Park. "Yeah, we'll take that," he said. "That's a great birthday present."Niemann was talking about his spring debut, not the game's outcome. It was typical Niemann - groundout to second, fly ball to right, strikeout looking. He needed 12 pitches to toss the first clean inning this spring by a member of the Rays rotation. He threw 20 more pitches in the bullpen before calling it a birthday. "Felt good," he said. "Everything was sharp." The control issues that dogged Niemann after he returned last August from a stint on the disabled list with a strained right shoulder are no longer an issue. Niemann felt that problem was solved near the end of last season when his health returned. Rays manager Joe Maddon believes Niemann was the club's most consistent starter from the start of 2009, when Niemann made the team as the fifth starter, until his injury last August. He took the ball every fifth day and usually pitched deep enough into the game, giving the Rays a chance to win nearly every start. "That's all we ask out of our guys," catcher Kelly Shoppach said. "You don't have to be great, just give us a chance to win." Working in Niemann's favor is his command of all his pitches - fastball, curveball, slider, splitter, change-up. He uses his height to his advantage by pounding the bottom of the strike zone with a fastball that clocks in around 89 to 91 mph and has great movement. "Everything he throws has great movement," Maddon said. What makes Niemann so reliable is a delivery he can repeat on each pitch. At 6-foot-9, Niemann has a lot of long moving parts. Getting them to work in synch on each pitch is a, well, tall order. "He repeats as well as anybody on his staff," Maddon said. "He's unusual in the fact he's that tall, repeats that well and commands that many pitches." Being that tall may actually have worked to Niemann's advantage as he developed into a first round draft pick at Rice University and then a major league pitcher during his climb through the Rays farm system. "I think that is important," Shoppach said. "From a young age he was gigantic. Those long limbs, long-lever guys have to really be in control of their body, their delivery. I think that is a part of who he is now. He created the practice to repeat that same delivery over and over and over. That's his big key, having those big old long levers in check, because there is so much more room for error with those long limbs." Niemann said he wasn't unusually tall until he reached high school. "Sophomore, junior year when everyone stopped growing, I kept going and kept going," he said. "I grew an inch the year after high school. I just stopped later than everyone else." The guy often mistaken for a basketball player is actually a pitcher able to control his long legs, long arms and broad shoulders close to 100 times a start, sometimes more. He uses his height and a release point that is closer to home plate than most any pitcher in baseball to his advantage by creating a downward angle on his fastball and slider that makes it difficult for hitters to dig the ball out of the bottom of the strike zone. But perhaps the biggest advantage of being so big is it forced Niemann to fine tune his delivery so he can repeat it so often. "You have got to have things fluid and smooth, because any little flaw is magnified when you're bigger," Niemann said. "You have more moving parts, bigger levers. It's just one of those things I had to figure out and am still trying to, honestly."