Omar Minaya once famously told New York Daily News columnist John Harper, "Watch this Nieuwenhuis kid. He’s going to be something."
After he made the team out of spring training in 2012, Kirk Nieuwenhuis immediately began living up to the words of the man who drafted him. That April he posted a .325/.386/.475 (142 wRC+) in his first 88 plate appearances as a major league player. He also wowed fans with some dazzling defensive plays.
Despite that hot start, there were clear red flags in his game. Major league pitchers quickly began to expose Nieuwenhuis’ struggling contact skills. After striking out just ten times in his first fifteen games he went on to strike out ten times in the next five.
As frustration grew, he became more aggressive at the plate. A 37 percent swing rate in April climbed to 42 percent in May and then nearly 49 percent in June. The increasing swing rate coincided with declining contact rates. The trending numbers resulted in a dreadful July during which Nieuwenhuis hit just .105/.190/.132 before being demoted to Triple-A Buffalo, ending his rookie season in Flushing. He didn’t get very long to work on his swing, as five games into his assignment he injured his foot while running down the first base line. A partially torn plantar fascia in his right foot ultimately ended his season.
Unfortunately, Nieuwenhuis had more injury woes in 2013, as he suffered a knee injury in March that cut three weeks out of his spring training work. Although he made the team again for Opening Day, he did not produce well in his limited playing time and was sent down to Trpile-A Las Vegas to work on things. A mid-season recall did not lead to good results. Nieuwenhuis finished 2013 with 108 plate appearances and below the Mendoza Line.
Nieuwenhuis's numbers against left-handed pitchers are so dreadful—34.8 percent strikeout rate and .038 ISO lifetime—it's impossible to imagine him ever improving enough to become a full-time regular. So let's take a look at some of his 2012-13 results against right-handed pitching and see if there is any hope of him one day becoming a major league platoon bat.
The first thing that stood out to me was that massive gap in swing rate between fastballs and changeups. There were few changeups that Nieuwenhuis was not interested in swinging at, and he struggled to make contact with them. This is a clear sign of a pitch recognition problem. If he can't lay off a right-handed pitcher's changeup, he would have no chance at a future in Major League Baseball.
The .276 ISO against four-seam fastballs was a promising sign. For a comparison example, Lucas Duda had a .221 ISO against heaters in his breakout 2014 season. The difference between the two guys is that Duda swung at the pitch more often (44% vs 38%) and made much better contact (6.6% Whiffs vs 12.6%). This is another sign of inferior pitch recognition from Nieuwenhuis.
In 2014, while riding the Triple-A shuttle a couple of times, Nieuwenhuis was suddenly starting to have some success in the major leagues. Albeit a small sample, in 130 plate appearances he hit a productive .259/.346/.482 with a 130 wRC+. A quick glance at his peripherals might point to nothing but a fluky season over a short stretch. His batting average on balls in play spiked to an unsustainable .361. His strikeout rate was 30 percent, in line with career numbers. Same ol' Kirk but just having a lucky year, right? Well, maybe not.
Did you notice the stark difference against four-seam fastballs and changeups from his 2012-13 results? His swing rate against fastballs rose nearly 8 percent. His changeup swing rate declined 12 percent. Only 31 percent of his changeups seen from 2012-13 were called a ball. This rose to 52 percent in 2014. He also show improvement in resisting sliders. Nieuwenhuis had made clear gains in his pitch recognition ability.
Even though his bat-to-ball contact skill didn't improve—and at 27, it's unlikely it ever will—his improvement in pitch recognition allowed him to lay off more offspeed pitches and breaking balls and allowed him to pull the trigger on more fastballs. This led to the better results.
If he continues to move forward with this pitch recognition improvement, he may earn the right to be first lefty-bat off the bench for the Mets in 2015.
All tables from BrooksBaseball.net.