It didn’t sound like much. It was just a bruise. He could play through it. Then it was only supposed to keep him out for a week or so. And yet, a bruised left hand and thumb, which ultimately kept him off the field for a month, has provided the narrative shape for Brandon Nimmo’s 2013 season.
Nimmo, the Mets’ first round pick in the 2011 draft, was a consensus Top 10 prospect in the Mets system entering 2013. Baseball America placed him #3, Baseball Prospectus #9, MLB.com #4, John Sickels #8 and he was #5 right here.
The 20-year-old began the year on a tear, hitting .424/.513/.576 through the season’s first 17 games in Historic Grayson Stadium, a tough stadium on hitters in general and downright hostile to left-handed power. Then, in Lakewood April 20th or 21st, he bruised his hand.
Nimmo tried to play through it, but could not. In the next six games, he was 1-for-27 (.042) with 10 strikeouts in 27 plate appearances, a strikeout rate of 37%.
At the end of April, the Mets decided to put Nimmo on the disabled list to allow his hand to heal. A week after he was placed on the DL, Gnats manager Luis Rojas told me, “It’s nothing major. We’re checking it out closely. Right now, we’re just communicating with the doctors, the hand specialists in Savannah and the doctor in New York. They’re gonna set a progression that’s going to take a couple of days. It’s nothing major. He should be back maybe in five days.”
That optimistic prediction was off. Nimmo did not return to the field until May 28, exactly a month after his last game on April 29. When he returned, he did not hit. From May 28 through July 21, he hit .228/.343/.305 with 76 strikeouts in 234 plate appearances, a strikeout rate of 32.5%. His isolated slugging percentage dipped to .077.
August came, and Nimmo started hitting again. In 25 games this month, Nimmo has hit .354/.514/.456 with 24 walks and 24 strikeouts in 105 plate appearances. That’s a 22.9% walk and strikeout rate. His isolated slugging percentage is back over .100 in August.[sny-line]
Nimmo refused to say he was not healthy in June and July when he was on the field and playing. “I try to not make any excuses. I played. I felt like I was good enough to play. I’m not going to make an excuse for numbers. We just went through some rough times, and that’s baseball.” However, he played all of June with physio tape on his wrist. By the middle of July, in time for the All-Star Futures’ game, he had weaned himself from the tape as his hand began to feel better.
And yes, Nimmo concedes that by the end of August, his hand is in a different place than it was in preceding months, “Yeah, I do feel better now. I just feel more normal. Obviously, this past month has been great, and I’ve been definitely felt much better.”[sny-line]
When Nimmo returned from the disabled list, it appeared as though he did not trust his hands. This led to a cascade where he started landing with his front foot too close to home plate in his stride. By July, he was working to correct it.
Gnats manager Luis Rojas explains, “What he was doing, striding too close, and it was causing him to get locked middle-in and inside. Now, he’s more fluid with his hips going through the zone and keeping his bat longer.”
Nimmo feels the difference, “I was getting into a little bit of a bad habit of closing myself off. And I still do a little bit. But by shortening my step a little bit more, it keeps me a little bit more even at the plate. The more even I can be, the better I can get to the outside pitch, the better I can get to the inside pitch.”
According to Mets’ Hitting Coordinator Lamar Johnson, “The next step for him is just to get a consistent swing. Right now, he’s showing that swing sometimes, but he’s gotta get it a little more consistent and that’s the maturity part of it. “[sny-line]
Young hitters develop on two separate, but related paths. First, there’s a mechanics path where each hitter learns his swing and makes tweaks along the way. Second, there’s a more mental path where the hitter learns which pitches to swing at when. In essence, it’s operationalizing the mechanics. They are related, but independent in a way. A hitter who has a perfected his own swing cannot connect with a slider a foot outside. Nor can he cannot with a fat fastball if he chooses not to swing.
Johnson sees a better Nimmo in this respect. “He’s starting to mature and learn what he can do and what he can’t do on certain pitches. Just sitting here watching him the last three games [August 23-24] has shown me some things I didn’t see in early April: he’s taking that ball away from him now and driving it that way, before he was feeling for it a little bit. Now you can see he’s learning his swing and what he can do and that’s important – it’s the first step in becoming a good hitter: knowing what you can do and what you can’t do. He’s hitting the ball where it’s pitched.”
Where most young hitters need to be taught to lay off pitches, Nimmo was the reverse. Rojas again, “Now he’s being more aggressive. He’s got excellent strike zone discipline, sometimes, he tends to get a little too timid, but the last two weeks he’s been ready. He’s seeing the ball very well out of the pitcher’s hands. It was fun to watch him on the roadtrip.
“That’s the beautiful part of development where you see a guy improve in the little areas that he needs to improve. That’s one of the areas where we want Brandon to keep working on. He has the strike zone discipline – he came with that package – but at the same time, with that pitch recognition and discipline, we want him to be aggressive with the pitch that he can drive. And that’s what he’s done the last two weeks.”
Nimmo, ever the good student, echoes Rojas’ words in describing his slightly revised attitude at the plate, “It’s just controlled aggression. You’re just trying to get a good pitch to hit, but trying not expand the zone. All you’re trying to do is get a pitch you can drive.”
While talking about being more aggressive, Nimmo’s walk rate in August of 22.9% is his highest in any month this year, while his strikeout rate of 22.9% nearly matches his April rate (22.4%).[sny-line]
Nimmo has worked through a frustrating injury. He has addressed both sides of hitting: the physical and the mental, adjusting his swing mechanics when he fell into bad habits, and working on learning when and how to be aggressive and selective. That, as his manager said, is development.[sny-line]
Nimmo’s 2013 in Table Form
[sny-table rowheader=true columnheader=true]
Through April 21;.424;.513;.576;1.089;80;10;14;12.5;17.5;.152
May 28-July 31;.228;.343;.305;.648;234;31;76;13.2;32.5;.077