Righthanded flamethrower Nick Nelson showed great promise in 2020 and is now well-positioned to become a stellar relief pitcher for the Yankees this coming season.
Nick Nelson’s anticipated ascendancy couldn’t come at a better time. Reliever Adam Ottavino had pitched quite effectively during the 2019 season for the Yankees. However, he was inconsistent and struggled during the shortened 2020 season (he was 2-3 with a 5.89 ERA and no saves).
As a result, skipper Aaron Boone was hesitant to use Ottavino in critical situations towards the end of the 2020 season and in the playoffs (he only pitched two-thirds of an inning against the Tampa Bay Rays and relinquished one earned run). No one knows which Ottavino will show up next season, the final year of his three-year contract.
Tommy Kahnle, who had been pitching well in relief, will miss the entire 2021 campaign following Tommy John surgery and is now moving on to the Dodgers. Jonathan Holder, who has had a mixed record on the mound during his tenure with the Yanks, was non-tendered and ended up in Chicago.
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There is an excellent chance that Nelson, who just turned 25 on Dec. 5, will be a knight in shining armor in the Bombers’ bullpen. The potential relief ace played baseball for Gulf Coast State College in Florida and was picked by the Yanks in the fourth round of the MLB draft in 2016 and signed. He pitched well in the minors in 2019 (with Tampa, Trenton, and the SWB RailRiders) and was added to the Yankees’ roster in late July 2020.
Nelson had a terrific debut with the Yanks in 2020, pitching three innings against the Boston Red Sox at Yankee Stadium last July.
Relying primarily on a 96-99 mph four-seam fastball, a deceptive changeup he developed in the minor leagues, and an occasional slider, he held the Red Sox to no hits and no runs scored. He gave up two base-on-balls and struck out four batters. Nelson is the first pitcher in Yankee history to throw three or more innings and earn the win in his first major league outing.
Overall, Nelson appeared in 11 games and pitched 20.2 innings in 2020. He struck out 18 batters and finished the compressed season with a 4.79 ERA. There were times when Nelson didn’t perform as well as in the Boston game. He will have to improve his consistency on the mound in 2021.
Although he didn’t appear against Cleveland No-Names in the ALWC, he pitched a total of two innings in two games and didn’t give up a run against the Tampa Bay Rays in the ALDS. Nelson struck out two batters, gave up one hit, and walked none.
Matt Blake, the Yankees’ second-year pitching coach, will want to work with Nelson during Spring Training on his pitches. In addition to his excellent live fastball and a dependable changeup, Nelson also has a fluid motion on the mound. He now needs to establish an equally dominant slider or curveball. His command of his pitches needs further work as well.
Having at least two and preferably three go-to pitches will serve Nelson well as a relief pitcher over the upcoming regular season. Depending on his progress and how he develops, there is also a chance that he could become a starter for the Bombers in the future.