PORT CHARLOTTE — When manager Joe Maddon looks at right-hander Jeff Niemann this spring, he sees a different guy.
He sees a more obvious form of self-confidence, a tremendous amount of focus.
"He knows he belongs here now," Maddon said.
For all the talk about Niemann's physical tools, from the 6-foot-9, 260-pound frame to his mid-90s fastball, it's his mental makeup that's a big reason he had such an impressive rookie season, leading the staff with 13 wins after earning the fifth starter's spot on the final day of spring.
It's a credit to the "mental tricks" Niemann said he learned from sports psychologist Ken Ravizza, breathing exercises that helped him slow the game down and bounce back from rough moments. But it's also due to the quiet determination Niemann has used to persevere throughout a career that has had its share of bumps.
"In every step of the way for me, I've always kind of been at some point in an underdog situation, whether it be high school, college or wherever," said Niemann, 27. "It's just something I kind of thrive on doing and something I enjoy doing — stuff you're not supposed to do."
Before Niemann was the fourth overall pick in 2004, there were humble beginnings. With his family not having a lot of money, Niemann had to work as a counselor in a behavioral center to pay to play for his summer ball team in high school. The facility, which was the last stop for minors before going to jail, was a chaotic environment, and Niemann said he saw "crazy" things he couldn't even describe.
"You never got a good night sleep; there was always a potential of something happening," Niemann said. "It was very uneasy, sleeping on the couch, four days on, four days off, playing ball on top of that, too."
Undrafted out of high school, he landed at Rice University, where he went from an unheralded fourth starter (pitching mostly in midweek games) his freshman year to a postseason hero; he won the decisive seventh game of the 2003 NCAA regional against Washington. "That," Rice coach Wayne Graham said, "showed me a lot."
Niemann became one of the nation's best pitchers and joined fellow Rice pitchers Wade Townsend and Philip Humber among the top eight picks of the 2004 draft. They've all suffered significant arm injuries, with only Niemann so far working his way back into a big-league rotation.
"If you look at that body type, and how big he is, he's almost a once-in-a-lifetime kind of pitcher," said Townsend, a good friend and former Rays prospect who is on a minor-league contract with the Blue Jays. "They finally gave him a chance in the big leagues, and once he got his feet wet, that's what he's supposed to do, what he was born to do."
Niemann's lengthy journey to the majors included the 204 days it took to sign after he was drafted and the rehab from a 2005 shoulder surgery that "forced me to start all over from Square 1."
The wait made last year's success all the more rewarding. Niemann ranked first among American League rookies in winning percentage (.684), ERA (3.94), complete games and shutouts (two each).
"He showed he can dominate," Ben Zobrist said. "And I think he also showed a great ability to make adjustments."
Niemann said the adjustments he made partly stemmed from Ravizza's "mental tricks," which he translated into daily life this offseason on his 166-acre ranch in Texas while trying to hit a bull's-eye with his bow and arrow.
Now, Niemann is taking aim at topping his 2009 feats.
"Last year was, 'I can do it,' " Niemann said. "And now it's proving I can do it again."
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected]