Ryne Nelson’s dominant spring signals resurgent 2024 campaign with Arizona Diamondbacks

Overcoming past struggles, Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Ryne Nelson secures a spot in the rotation but struggled in his first start Monday against the New York Yankees. (Photo by Joe Eigo/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – After a six-week-long battle for the fifth and final spot in the Arizona Diamondbacks’ starting rotation, right-handed pitcher Ryne Nelson earned the nod from manager Torey Lovullo.

However, it didn’t quite unfold the way he anticipated, and it might be a temporary assignment.

Entering spring training, the Diamondbacks had already finalized their first four rotation spots with right-handers Zac Gallen and Merrill Kelly, followed by left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez and right-hander Brandon Pfaadt.

Pitchers in competition for the final rotation spot included Nelson and Tommy Henry, alongside longshot prospects Bryce Jarvis, Slade Cecconi and Blake Walston.

Cecconi and Walston were both optioned to Triple-A Reno on March 18, narrowing the race down to Jarvis, Henry and Nelson late into camp. But after Rodriguez suffered a lat strain on March 22 and was ruled out, the spot opened for Nelson.

However, that was until the late signing of southpaw free agent Jordan Montgomery threw a wrench into Nelson’s plans.

Without a team all offseason, Montgomery missed the entirety of spring training and needed to get up to speed in Triple-A before joining the major league club. He is expected to debut for the Diamondbacks in mid-April, at which point Nelson is likely to move into a bullpen role.

The signing of Montgomery, who helped the Texas Rangers beat the Diamondbacks in the 2023 World Series, was viewed as a coup around baseball and bolsters what was already a solid Diamondbacks rotation.

“You could tell just by the way they were playing through the playoffs that they were a tight-knit group, good winning culture, so I wanted to be a part of it,” Montgomery told reporters Friday in his introductory news conference.

The rotation – for now – is Gallen, Kelly and Henry, followed by Pfaadt and Nelson on the back end. Once Rodriguez is healthy and Montgomery is ready, uncertainty looms for both Henry and Nelson.

Jarvis made the team as a long reliever, coming out of the bullpen to eat up innings if needed. In addition to Pfaadt, this leaves four young, yet experienced pitchers rounding out the rotation.

“I know that this group has been battle-tested,” Lovullo said. “Ryne Nelson almost won 10 baseball games and he won eight games last year, and threw well in one of the World Series games.

“I know Tommy was banged up a little bit towards the end of the year last year, but he had some moments where he was pitching well, so they’re not first-year guys. They’ve gotten some really valuable experience, and I think they’re ready for this next challenge.

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“I know they’re all really excited for this opportunity. They deserve it.”

The 26-year-old Nelson recorded a 2.66 ERA in 20.1 innings this spring, striking out 26 hitters over the course of five starts. Nelson’s recent success is a testament to his overall improvement on his secondary pitches.

The 2023 season was one to forget for Nelson, when he recorded a 5.31 ERA in 144 innings. He moved to the bullpen in late September, working from there throughout the Diamondbacks’ exciting postseason run.

“I think last year during this time I was kind of grinding through some stuff and didn’t really feel like I had my best stuff,” Nelson said. “I was kind of just feeling a little bit on the defense and right now I feel like I’m attacking hitters and kind of doing what I want out there and executing. And that’s been the biggest thing. Execution feels really good.”

For years, he relied on his fastball, which currently averages 94.4 mph with good movement. Yet, he relied on it too much in 2023, allowing a .308 batting average and a .554 slugging percentage with the pitch while throwing it 54.6% of the time.

In 2022, his first stint as a major leaguer, Nelson struck out 7.9 hitters per nine innings, a significant drop from his 2021 minor-league season, when that rate was 12.6. In 2023, that rate lowered to an underwhelming six batters per nine innings.

The struggles gave him an objective for the offseason to not only develop proper secondary pitches to fool hitters at the plate, but to stay focused while on the mound.

“The most important thing is just in my mentality and along with the mechanical and group adjustments,” Nelson said. “My mentality, I feel like, has been the most important thing that’s helped me to work at-bats and to stay focused and to keep getting good at-bats and get the results that I want.”

Primarily working on his slider and change-up, Nelson tweaked his grip on the latter pitch throughout spring. It was his most efficient pitch in 2023, garnering a 31.2% whiff rate. The adjustments are working; hitters are now swinging at the pitch.

Nelson scuffled in his first start of the season Monday, allowing five runs in 2 2/3 innings to the New York Yankees. He struggled with command, a detail that he’d worked on all spring.

Nonetheless, only time will tell how Nelson’s Cactus League success translates to the real season – and where he will fit amid a crowded and talented rotation.

“It felt okay, not great,” Nelson told reporters Monday after his first start against the Yankees. “It sometimes just doesn’t feel like I’m really being aggressive with it, and sometimes that happens when they’re not really chasing it too. So you try to make the adjustment, bring it back on to the plate and then start giving up hits with it. So it kind of just … builds off of each other.”

Aaron Schmidt EH-run shmit
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Aaron Schmidt expects to graduate in spring 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and a minor in film and media production. In addition to the Phoenix Sports Bureau, Schmidt reports for The Arizona Republic and The State Press. He has also interned with Arizona’s Family and Arizona Sports 98.7.

Joe Eigo joe EYE-go (he/him)
Sports Visual Journalist, Phoenix

Joe Eigo expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Eigo is in his third semester at Cronkite News. He has previously worked with Inferno Intel, WCSN, The State Press and The Racing Experts.