Please welcome Bryan Grosnick to the Beyond the Box Score family. He's contributed previously at CloserNews, Roto Hardball, and RPGFan. I speak for all of us when I say we're so excited to have him. -jbopp
One of my favorite parts of Spring Training is seeing non-roster invitees try to carve out a spot with a major league franchise. Former first-round draft pick C.J. Nitkowski is one of those NRI players this season, and after five years in Asia and one year out of baseball entirely, he's trying to catch on with the Mets, according to Anthony DiComo of MLB.com. While players like Colby Lewis and Ryan Vogelsong have returned from Asia to pitch effectively in the bigs, Nitkowski is coming back as a different type of pitcher than when he left. Instead of pitching overhand, he's now a sidewinder.
Apparently Nitkowski has modeled his new delivery after former Met Pedro Feliciano, who had quite a bit of success from 2003 to 2010 before suffering a severe shoulder injury. But the question for Nitkowski won't be if he can avoid injury, it will be if he can effectively pitch at the major league level. Aside from two decent years as a swingman and reliever for the Detroit Tigers in 1999 and 2000, he hasn't shown he's capable of that. With a career FanGraphs WAR of 1.3, the young version of Nitkowski was a replacement-level pitcher at his best. Can a change in delivery make Nitkowski anything more at the age of 38?
It seems that the best-case scenario for Nitkowski is to pitch like Javier Lopez, who has recently been a solid contributor for the San Francisco Giants. Lopez has a pedestrian strikeout rate (career 6.79 K/9) and can struggle with control (about four walks per nine), which align closely with Nitkowski's major league stats. But Lopez differs in that he does an excellent job at keeping the ball on the ground and in the park. 2010 and 2011 have been solid years for Lopez, who's managed to give up two home runs over the past two seasons. He's also managed a GB% over 60%, which leaves his defense to do the tough work of recording outs.
Nitkowski's career GB% is about 47%, which means that he'll really have to work down in the zone and leverage any new sinking action to induce grounders. In addition, Nitkowski will have to locate his pitches out of the new delivery and try to cut down on his career walks. If he's found a way to keep his slider while pitching from the side, this could be key, as a slider is a valuable pitch for a left-handed sidearmer. Feliciano and Lopez both leverage a slider as their most effective pitch, according to Pitch Type Linear Weights. And no matter what, he'll still probably be badly exposed against right-handed hitters, with the upside of a LOOGY.
How successful will the transition be for Nitkowski? That's anyone's guess, but if C.J. Nitkowski pitches like, well, C.J. Nitkowski, then he's probably not likely to last. Even if he does show marginal improvement, the odds are long to make a Met squad with an entrenched LOOGY in Tim Byrdak. But there is hope for C.J., as sidearming pitchers like Lopez, Feliciano, and Joe Smith have real value. If the new C.J. Nitkowski can make the proper adjustments, he'll spend the next couple of years toiling in a major league bullpen somewhere. Just don't expect him to turn into Dan Plesac overnight.
All data provided by FanGraphs.com.