Nelson was drafted by the D’Backs in the 2nd round of the 2019 amateur draft. The 6-foot-3, 184 lbs pitcher attended the University of Oregon where he was a hard throwing righty out of the pen for much of his collegiate career. He also spent the 2018 season as the team’s starting shortstop although it was clear his future lay toeing the rubber. He posted impressive numbers in the Cape Cod League where he was again utilised out of the bullpen ultimately finishing the premier summer league with an impressive ERA of 2.65. His performances were strong enough to convince Oregon Head Coach George Horton to give Nelson some starts on the mound although he was limited to just four due to his lack of control and ability to get through the line-up. He impressed enough for the D’Backs to sign him to a bonus of $1.1 million.
Nelson made his professional debut in 2019 near his former college stomping grounds at the Hillsboro Hops in the Pacific North West, then a member of the Low A Short Season League. He amassed 10 starts and posted a 2.89 ERA, a very respectable number for his first foray into pro ball. He did, however, walk an average of 4.8 batters per 9 innings. It was his command of his pitches that led to questions about Nelson’s future, specifically if he would be able to establish himself as a starter with better control or remain flamethrower out of the ‘pen. D’Backs farm director Josh Barfield described Nelson as being “raw out of college” and this could be in part due to his two-way commitments.
2020 would provide a defining moment for Nelson’s career. He was a casualty of the COVID 19 cancelled minor league season and wasn’t included in the 60-man alternate site roster meaning he had to work out away from the team facility and without close contact with coaches. Even worse (or better in the long run as it would turn out) Nelson required surgery on his eyes. Throughout his baseball career he had worn glasses or contact lenses whilst on the mound but unfortunately his vision continued to worsen. This required frequent new prescriptions for Nelson to adjust to. It was decided that he would go under the knife in May and use the lack of a competitive season to rehab which he could do at the team’s facility. It was this period that Nelson credits with being a “turning point for his career.” He was able to work on his mechanics and without the worry of constantly changing prescriptions he has been able to refine his pitching.
This clearly showed in his 2021 performance which began at the now full season Single A Hillsboro and finished at Double A Amarillo. The improvements Nelson had made during 2020 were evident after he cut his walks per 9 innings down to 3.2. He was promptly called up to Double A Amarillo, a notable hitter friendly environment, where he was able to impress with a 3.62 ERA through 77 innings. He did struggle slightly suppressing the long ball, however, allowing 1.5 HR/9 (up from 0.7 HR/9 at Hillsboro) against a league average of 1.2 although he did just surpass the Soddies team average of 1.6 HR/9. He also improved his command further by walking only 3.0 batters per 9. He also set a personal and team best for strikeouts with 12 punchouts for Amarillo in a game on 13 August.
Nelson went on the win the Diamondbacks’ Organisational Pitcher of the Year honours and has firmly established himself as one of the organisations top pitching prospects. According to Keith Law of the Athletic he is #5 on the D’Backs top 30 and #74 on the top 100 prospects in all of baseball. Nelson is yet to crack the 40-man roster and is likely to start the 2022 season at Triple A Reno, another notable hitter’s park. It will be interesting to see how aggressive the D’Backs wish to be with Nelson’s development given he has only one full season under his belt. The future looks bright for Nelson, however, with Barfield prophesying that he “projects as a mid to front end starter in the bigs.” The signs all point to Nelson arriving in the big leagues before too long and Barfield’s prediction is sure to leave fans eagerly anticipating his big-league debut.
Featured image of Ryne Neslon by John E. Moore III/Getty Images.
Matthew O’Brien is one of the growing team of writers at Bat Flips and Nerds. You can follow on Twitter @DiamondbacksUk.