Fifteenth-round picks don’t always draw a lot of attention from baseball enthusiasts, but talent is talent, and it has a way of making itself known. The Boston Red Sox first selected him in the 18th round in 2015, but Nelson instead decided to attend Cisco Junior College in Texas. In retrospect, he believes it was a much better idea than joining the pro ranks immediately out of high school.
“The biggest reason (for turning down Boston) was that I was a shortstop, and a young shortstop, at that,” Nelson recalled. “We were looking at the fact that they had a lot of depth in the infield, and I didn’t think I’d get a lot of playing time to show what I could do.”
After one season at Cisco, Nelson was again drafted, this time by the Marlins but a few rounds higher. Coming into the season at age 18, Nelson more than held his own, posting a slash of .284/.344/.364 in 43 games. It was a season light on power, but the numbers suggested that there could be extra bases a-plenty in his future.
Adjusting to the mental aspect of pro baseball has its own challenges, though Nelson seems unfazed by this side of the game.
“As far as how you carry yourself, there’s a big difference. I mean, you gotta go out on the field and believe you’re the best. Every pitch, every ground ball, it doesn’t matter. You always have to carry yourself with confidence. But I don’t think there were any huge adjustments I had to make.”
“And everybody’s good in pro ball, they throw more pitches than I saw in juco. They throw more strikes in the pros; in juco, you could just sit on the fastball. But here, they come at you with different pitches, and they throw those pitches for strikes.”
Nelson credits his time in junior college with helping him to adapt to pro-level pitching.
“Watching that pitching (in juco) helped me a lot, especially going into pro ball. Some of those guys I saw when I played at Cisco, I saw in the pros as well. The pitching at that level translated over pretty well to what I’ve seen in the minors”
Advancing to the Class-A Greensboro Grasshoppers in 2017, Nelson upped his game significantly while playing against older and more-experienced competition. His OPS jumped 101 points, largely due to developing extra-base gap power (31 doubles, 7 homers) and above-average speed (6.70 in 60, measured in 2015).
“Speed has helped me out a lot. I had a lot of infield hits, and sometimes I would be like ‘wow, I didn’t know I could beat out that ball’. Hustle helps out a lot, for sure.”
Even more impressive: from May 2nd to June 9th, Nelson failed to reach base in a game only once. It was a forty-game stretch in which he batted .364, slugged .549, and drove in 26 runs on the strength of 14 doubles, two triples and four homers.
He cooled off dramatically in July, though he did deal with hamstring issues twice in the season (.244 in 25 games), but turned it around again in August with a .354 average and .894 OPS in 12 games. Over the season, he batted an unreal .466 over 58 at-bats with two outs and runners in scoring position. He batted .331 vs. LHP, but was far from a platoon bat (.300 vs. RHP).
For his efforts, Nelson was named the Marlins’ Minor-League Player of The Year. He was also a Mid-Season and Post-Season All-Star.
Nelson’s season was no fluke; on top of a natural feel for frequent contact, he also learns and adjusts quickly to the approach of opposing pitchers. Not that it’s been easy, of course.
“They’re going to throw you a lot of fastballs, obviously, because they don’t know you. But up here, everybody’s good. Everybody can play. So they’re going to come at you with everything they’ve got.”
“They’re all trying to make it, just like you.”
Nelson does mention a change in his batting stance, made at the beginning of the 2017 season, that he feels made a very big difference for him.
“At the beginning of the season, and me and my dad talked about this a lot...I was a lot more spread out in my stance. I looked at video, because I didn’t believe him, but he told me that I looked really wide. So I became more upright in my stance, because that’s how I used to hit, and it worked out really well for me.”
While he did play third base as an amateur, Nelson was primarily a shortstop. He had plenty of range, quickness and arm strength for the position, but was moved to third on a regular basis after being drafted.
Despite appearing to be comfortable with the positional change, Nelson has made 31 errors in 120 appearances at third base, many due to misjudged timing or short-arming throws. Still, it’s felt that third base will remain his home for the foreseeable future.
“I played third in the past, in junior college, for a little bit. The ball obviously gets on you a lot faster, but I felt like I would definitely be able to make that adjustment.”
Nelson is also very appreciative of Greensboro manager Todd Pratt, who helped him to remain centered at the plate.
“(Coach Pratt) told me to stay calm. Sometimes, I would get too antsy in the box. I’d start swinging at pitches for no real reason. And I would get into that pattern, and then not know why I was doing so bad. I was just swinging at bad pitches.”
“He just told me to slow everything down. Game’s fast enough, as it is. We don’t need to make it any faster.”
He continued on the subject, relating his approach to dealing with bad at-bats or frustrating stretches.
“You’ll get into a stretch where you’re swinging at bad pitches, just for no real reason, and you need something to break that pattern. I know how to play the game; I mean, I’ve been playing since I was three years old. So I know what to do. It’s just a matter of keeping a simple approach.”
“The Marlins always preach two things, in particular: be on time, and swing at good pitches. At the end of the day, that’s all you gotta do. So if I’m swinging at bad pitches, or get into a bad pattern, I’ll just step out, take a deep breath, focus on something off in the distance just to get my attention off the game for a few seconds. Then I step back into the box and keep on swinging.”
Even with his success, thus far, Nelson doesn’t seem to be negatively effected by expectations.
He credits his off-field interest in gaming with helping him to relax.
“Nowadays, you can get online and talk to everybody. It seems like you’re right in the room with them. And everybody in my circle plays. My favorite games are NBA 2K and Fortnite. Oh, and Call of Duty, of course.”
A low-key, pragmatic sort of personality, Nelson’s simple but effective approach to baseball is likely to lead him into many discussions concerning minor-league prospects. Hindsight being what it is, he might just make that 15th-round selection seem like a real bargain for the rebuilding Marlins in the Derek Jeter Era.