[Interview] Nick Nelson Eager to Showcase Improved Repertoire in 2019

There was a time not long ago that Yankees pitching prospect Nick Nelson couldn’t even fathom being a pitcher at all. Nelson was a two-way player at Gulf Coast State CC in his native Florida before the Yankees used a premium selection and drafted him in the fourth-round just two short seasons ago. The 23 year-old right-hander is coming off a 2018 campaign that saw him go through three levels of the system that began at Low-A Charleston and ultimately concluded with a cup of coffee in Double-A Trenton. The hard-throwing Nelson went 8-6 with a 3.55 ERA in 26 appearances (25 starts). In just over 121 innings of work, Nelson fanned 144 batters and walked just 63 while holding the opposition to a .216 batting average.

Nelson was kind enough to join Pinstriped Prospects via telephone last week to recap his 2018 season, his growth as a pitcher and his expectations moving forward.

Nick Nelson (Mark LoMoglio)
Matt Kardos:: How if the offseason treating you so far, what is your training like during these early winter months?
Nick Nelson: Right now I am working out four days a week and sometimes it’s twice per day. It just kind of depends on how I’m feeling ; if I’m feeling great then I’ll definitely get after that second workout that night.
MK: What’s your offseason throwing program like?
NN: Right now I’m kind of just doing a light little toss – nothing too heavy. It’s a long season and I try to save my bullets for that. I will start ramping it up at some point here in the next 15 days, or so.
MK: Do you have an ultimate goal for this offseason? Some guys try to bulk up and add muscle, some try to bump their velocity a few ticks. Are you trying to do anything like that, or is it more of a process to maintain what you’ve been doing?
NN: I’m definitely trying to maintain what I have been doing. I’m probably trying to get a little bit more flexible and just keep working on my mechanics to make sure that they’re good. Other than that, I’m going to keep working on my slider. I was working on developing that slider during instructs this past year, so I am going to continue working on that. Hopefully I’ll have that mastered by the time the season rolls around.
MK: How far have you come along with that slider since instructs?
NN: I had been trying to work in a slider since I was in Charleston at the start of last season. They told me to start messing with it, but I didn’t have any idea as to what I was doing with it and the pitch really wasn’t doing anything. I went down to instructs and all of the coaches and coordinators really helped me out a lot with it. I do feel like it’s been a big improvement and I feel confident with it going into spring training.
MK: Coming out of college and into pro-ball, you were essentially just a fastball and curveball guy. I know that you’ve put a great deal of emphasis and adding that third pitch; you started with a change-up and now the slider. How important do you think adding those additional pitches to your repertoire will be for your continued development?
NN: I think that it’s going to be huge. I developed a change-up about halfway through last season. I mean, I guess that I always had one, but I rarely threw it. I developed it when I got to Tampa. I was just messing in the dugout one day and I found a grip that I really liked. I threw it on flat ground the next day and they said it looked good. I threw it in a game the day after that and I think that I had five or six strikeouts with it. I definitely feel confident in my change-up going into the season and I’m pretty sure that adding that slider is going to help me out a lot.
MK: You’re a Florida guy, who did you root for growing up? The Marlins and Rays were still pretty new down there, so did you kind of root for those guys, or did you root outside of Florida?
NN: I was actually a Braves fan growing up. I was a big fan of Chipper Jones.
MK: Is Chipper the guy that you emulated and kind of wanted to be? Was there maybe a pitcher that you looked up to?

NN: I never imagined that today I would be pitching. I always thought that I would go somewhere for hitting. That’s why I liked Chipper – he was a good third baseman. Back in the day I was a little bit chunky and I couldn’t really play third base, so I got put at first. I didn’t really pay all that much attention to pitchers.

Charleston RiverDogs pitcher Nick Nelson before a game against the Lakewood BlueClaws in Lakewood, NJ on July 17, 2017 (Martin Griff)
MK: You were originally drafted by San Francisco out of high school, but you opted not to sign in favor of going to college. Was that a tough decision for you, or was it something that you knew early on in the process that you wanted to do?
NN: At that point in time I didn’t really think that I was going to get drafted. I had talked to a couple of scouts, and what not, but I didn’t really think much of it. I knew that I wasn’t really ready to go into professional baseball at that time coming out of high school, so it really wasn’t that hard of a decision to go to college to get a few more years under my belt.
MK: Is this all surreal to you? To think that at one point not too long ago, you didn’t even anticipate being drafted or even being a pitcher for that matter, to being taken by the Yankees with a high draft selection and held in regard as one of the better pitching prospects in the whole system entering 2019?
NN: You have no idea. It is the craziest thing. I always dreamed of playing pro-ball, but I never imagined myself being in the situation that I am now. If you sit back and look, it’s a little bit breathtaking in a way. It’s definitely surreal and crazy to think about.
MK: You went through three levels of the system in 2018. You started at Charleston, got bumped up to Tampa and then got a taste of Double-A Trenton to end the year. What was the biggest difference that you noticed in going from the Florida State League to the Eastern League?
NN: I think that the hitters approaches were the biggest thing. Down in Tampa and Charleston, you kind of get ambushed. I felt like in the short period of time that I was up in Trenton, I felt like they were much more patient. If it wasn’t their pitch, they weren’t going to offer at it. It was tougher to get them to swing at an 0-2 breaking ball or to chase out of the zone. I also saw that if you didn’t have your breaking stuff working that day, they would completely eliminate it and just sit on the fastball. I think that’s where I got into trouble up there.
MK: If you don’t open the season there, I anticipate that you’ll be back in Trenton at some point in 2019. Do you think that small sample there was a good barometer for you so that you can work this offseason fully knowing what to expect?
NN: I’m so grateful that I got to go up there for a short period of time because now I know what to expect for the upcoming year, even if I don’t start up there. I’m going to be working on controlling my fastball better and definitely working on my curveball because I kind of lost that towards the end of last season. Throwing the slider in the mix and keep working on the change-up are going to be big. Like I said, I’m very confident in my change-up right now. Going back to when I was throwing it last season, it’s actually one of my best pitches – it was right there with my fastball.
MK: Is it exciting to be in the Yankees system at this point in time? Having seen them rely on the farm so heavily over the last few seasons, does it feel like realizing your big league dream could be just a phone call away if you continue doing what you’ve been doing?
NN: Yeah, it’s most definitely exciting to think about. It kind of goes back to that whole surreal thing, like wow I made it to Double-A and you’re just a phone call away. Line Jonathan Loaisiga started last year in Tampa, got moved up and did good and then he got the call. It’s easier said than done, of course, but it’s just crazy to think about.
MK: Obviously the prestigious history behind the organization is well documented. The Yankees aim for a championship every single year, and sometimes they have to deal from the system in order to acquire big league pieces, as we have already seen this winter. Are those moves and the winter trade rumors something that you pay attention to during the offseason?
NN: I really try not to pay too much attention to it. Sometimes it will be in my Twitter feed or something like that, and when that stuff comes across I will usually check it out. If the cards fall and I end up getting traded, it’s just another opportunity – but I don’t pay too much attention to that stuff.
MK: Heading into an important 2019 season for you, A: What do you think you need to improve the most? B: Where have you improved the most since this time last year?
NN: Definitely working on fastball command is going to be a big part. I think the mental side of things is important for me, too. Instead of trying to be perfect in a tough situation, I need to calm myself down and know that I’m one pitch away from a fly out or a ground ball to get out of it.
As far as where I’ve grown since last year, I think maturity. I feel like I have grown up a little bit in pro-ball. I’ve also physically gotten a lot stronger than what I was last year. I know what I need to do to get things done – I don’t take any reps off. I feel like my arm is getting stronger as I develop better pitches. I’ve got that change-up, I know that I keep pressing you hard about that change-up; I’m proud of that thing, I love it. I think I’m throwing a little bit harder than I was last year too, as I continue to climb that ladder.