The Dodgers found a role that worked for Jimmy Nelson, and he was the Dodgers’ best reliever when he was on the mound. But he was unable to stay healthy, and his run of terrible injury luck will extend into a fifth, excruciating year.
2021 was Nelson’s second go around with the Dodgers. But after back surgery wiped out his 2020 campaign before it began, Nelson returned on a minor league contract this year. A former starter with the Brewers, Nelson was mentioned often early in spring training as one of the eight starting pitchers the Dodgers had in camp.
But by the end of camp, it became clear Nelson would make the club as a reliever, with manager Dave Roberts going so far as to call the right-hander “a two-inning monster.” More importantly, Nelson was healthy, a long road back from shoulder surgery, elbow effusion, and back surgery that limited him to only 22 total innings in the previous three years.
“When you’re not grinding through injuries and pain, you can actually enjoy the game,” Nelson said during spring training, with a wide smile. “It’s been a long time. I’m just trying to enjoy it every day.”
Nelson did make the opening day roster, and quickly emerged as one of the Dodgers best relievers, with a devastating three-pitch repertoire. Nelson used his slider to get right-handers out and his curveball to get lefties out, but was comfortable using both pitches as well as his fastball against anybody.
Opposing batters hit just .144/.270/.184 against Nelson, who did not allow a home run in 2021. The expected numbers based on batted-ball data were right in line, with a .139 expected batting average and ,197 expected slugging percentage. Few batters could touch him.
Nelson was a two-inning monster at times, pitching that long three times in the first seven weeks of the season, plus another five-out appearance and one game in which he got four outs. He missed 12 games in May and June with right forearm inflammation, after which Nelson was used more judiciously.
After May 20, Nelson never pitched more than one inning at a time, and usually had at least two days rest in between appearances. He only pitched on back-to-back days once in 2021, and that was April 30 and May 1, the second appearance coming in an impromptu bullpen game after Dustin May was injured.
Nelson also missed 14 games in July with a left lumbar strain, but then only pitched three games after returning. The right-hander was warming up to enter the August 3 game against the Astros, but felt something in his elbow, forcing the Dodgers to change plans.
“We had him up and getting ready to come in the game, and it just gave way. He felt something, and we had to shut it down,” Roberts said. “We feel very, very bad, because he’s been a big part of this.”
Shutting it down meant not only Tommy John surgery for Nelson, but also repairing his right flexor tendon as well, which will eat up most if not all of his 2022 season as well. A cruel end to an otherwise dominant season for Nelson.
Stats: 1.86 ERA, 1.89 FIP, 29 IP, 44 K, 37.9-percent K rate, 0.9 bWAR, 0.9 fWAR
Salary: $1.25 million
Game of the year
The closest Nelson came to fulfilling the “two-inning monster” promise came on May 20, the second pitcher used in a planned bullpen game against Arizona. He struck out all three hitters he faced in the third inning, then after a flyout to open the fourth he struck out two more.
Nelson allowed no runs in 22 of his final 25 appearances in 2021.
Nelson is a free agent.