PORT CHARLOTTE — Starter James Shields says Jeff Niemann told him he's going back to the "old-school days."
The current Niemann would be good enough as it is, considering the 6-foot-9 right-hander has been arguably the Rays' most consistent starter the past two seasons.
He has racked up at least 12 wins and at least a .600 winning percentage in back-to-back years, one of just eight pitchers to complete that feat over the span, joining such talents as CC Sabathia, Roy Halladay, Tim Lincecum and Adam Wainwright. And if it weren't for a short disabled list stint in August due to a shoulder strain, Niemann's numbers might have been even better.
Niemann, 28, has a unique ability to command several offspeed pitches for strikes, while using his size to his advantage to throw at a downward angle. And now he's starting to reincorporate his slider, saying he's more comfortable and confident with the pitch that used to be one of his best. It has added yet another weapon to an already impressive mix of changeup, curveball and split-finger.
"The thing about Jeff is that he's very unusual," manager Joe Maddon said. "It's rare that you find someone that has that many pitches that are that high quality, and throws it with that kind of command."
When Niemann was drafted in the first round (fourth overall) out of Rice in 2004, the slider was his go-to pitch. In 2006, Baseball America said Niemann had the best slider of any pitcher in the Rays organization. But during Niemann's long and adversity-filled journey in the minors, which included shoulder surgery in October 2005, he continued to reinvent himself on the mound.
Niemann said it was more through "trial and error," but his curveball turned into his best weapon, something he seemingly can throw in any count.
"My goodness, when that sucker is working right, he can buckle a lefty with that thing," Maddon said. "I've been behind him watching him throw, and the spin on the ball is pretty phenomenal."
Niemann said with the curveball and split working so well, the slider was put on the back burner. But he has used it more in spring training and has seen the consistency he has desired.
"Hopefully that can be a pitch for me again," he said.
Shields has seen a lot of growth in Niemann, who earned the Rays' fifth starter spot on the final day of spring training in 2009. As a rookie, he led the Rays in wins and ERA, impressing with his poise and calm in difficult moments. He became the first rookie pitcher to lead a defending AL champion in those categories since the Yankees' Bob Grim in 1954. Niemann went 12-8 last year and likely will line up as the team's No. 4 starter this season.
Shields said Niemann always has had the talent, but he has become a professional pitcher. The work ethic is great, and he has learned to set hitters up while understanding and trusting his stuff.
"That's the hardest part of pitching is understanding who you are as a pitcher," Shields said. "He doesn't throw 98 (mph) anymore like he did in college, now he has to pitch. He's developed an unbelievable splitter, his curveball is ridiculous and now he's developing his slider and he's back to the old-school days."
Niemann, whose two-week disabled list stint in August was the first of his career, said he's also back to feeling as strong as he did before the injury, when he started the season 6-0 and had one of the best first halves in Rays history.
"I feel great," he said. "Everything is in tune and everything is getting those same reactions and same looks of pitches I did when we were rocking and rolling."
Joe Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.