2011 Analysis: Jonathon Niese

Overall, Jonathon Niese took a step forward in 2011. But there were two issues that may impede his progress in 2012.

In 26 starts, Jon Niese gave the Mets 157 innings — an average of 6 IP per game. He gave them at least six frames 17 times, pitched seven or more 8 times, but never pitched beyond 7 2/3. Generally speaking, he was a solid innings eater and usually gave the Mets a chance to win. In other words, Niese was a solid #4 starter on most MLB teams — not bad for a 25-year-old, and certainly, reason for optimism. However, there are two issues that cause concern.

The first was his inability to finish the season strong — for the third straight year. To be fair, the hamstring injury that ended his ’09 campaign was a freak accident, so we can’t count it against him. In 2010, his performance dropped off markedly halfway through August, and he made it past the fifth inning only three times in his final six starts. Throughout the month of September 2010, Niese was visibly exhausted, yet manager Jerry Manuel continued to send him to the mound. This past season, he showed similar fatigue and a subsequent drop in performance beginning in late July — capped by an intercostal injury that ended his season on August 23. It could be argued that the injury was the cause of his poor outings. It could also be argued that the injury was the result of fatigue.

The second issue that concerns me about Jonathon Niese is his love affair with the cutter. Thus far, Niese has rarely been able to command both an effective cutter and a sharp-breaking curveball during the same outing — and that is because his mechanics and arm angle are slightly different for both pitches. When throwing the cutter, Niese rotates his upper body and drops his arm angle a few degrees. Usually, opposing batters won’t notice this — but part of the reason they don’t is because after a few innings, Niese will apply the same alterations in his delivery when throwing the fastball. This turns into a habit that makes it difficult for him to “change back” to proper curveball mechanics — while also “telegraphing” the curve to the batter. More significantly, this “sideways” delivery results in releasing the ball with the fingers to the side, and thus the baseball moves only laterally with very little, if any, sink. In other words, both the fastball and the cutter flatten out, and are easier to hit.

Remaining strong through a 162-game season is something that can probably be developed with a better conditioning program. The cutter issue goes back to 2010 and has yet to be addressed (or noticed?) by Dan Warthen.

2012 Projection

If Niese can stay strong and figure out a way to keep his arm angle at that high three-quarter release point, I’m confident he can become a solid #3 starter who gives a team 200 innings and 12-14 wins. If I was advising Niese, I’d recommend he ditch the cutter and replace it with a change-up, and work on staying “on top” with a consistent release point for all pitches. But, the change-up can take much longer to perfect, and an inconsistent cutter can be over-valued for its ability to get swings and misses when it’s working. Short-term results are always valued over long-term development at the MLB level, so I’m betting that Niese stays with the cutter and continues to be a good, but not great, #4 starter who eats innings but allows too many baserunners to take his game to the next level, rather than a solid #3 starter who shows flashes of becoming a #2.

Read the 2010 Analysis of Jonathon Niese

Joe Janish began MetsToday in 2005 to provide the unique perspective of a high-level player and coach -- he earned NCAA D-1 All-American honors as a catcher and coached several players who went on to play pro ball. As a result his posts often include mechanical evaluations, scout-like analysis, and opinions that go beyond the numbers. Follow Joe's baseball tips on Twitter at @onbaseball and at the On Baseball Google Plus page.
  1. Timo November 14, 2011 at 4:00 pm
    Nice article Joey. The cutter really messed up a few of our starters. Not sure who to blame for this. I like Niese (not only because he’s a lefty and we fellow lefties need to stick together) but I fear he ends up as Pelf. High ceiling but never panning out. I really hope your prediction comes true because all the Mets have are #4/#5 starters right now. We need one of them to get better because it’s easier to fill the #4/#5 starter than #3 starter.
    • Joe Janish November 14, 2011 at 10:32 pm
      Thanks Timo!

      Yes I agree — the entire rotation is filled with #4/#5 starters. That would be great if this were still 2006 and the Mets had a kick-butt offense. But the rest of the NL caught up to, and passed the Mets offensively, and suddenly pitching has become more dominant and important than it’s been since the 1980s. That said, the Mets might have a shot at doing something in 2012 if they really loaded up on offense … but if allowing Jose Reyes to walk away is any indication, my guess is that’s not going to happen.

  2. argonbunnies November 14, 2011 at 8:56 pm
    Joe, agreed that cutter usage is a big key to Niese’s future, though I have a different take on it.

    But I disagree about his potential. The difference between his actual ERA and his expected ERA based off K:BB and GB:FB was among the highest in baseball. I don’t think he actually needs to improve that much to be a solid #3. He just needs to get luckier (or more clutch, whichever).

    • Joe Janish November 14, 2011 at 10:39 pm
      Bunnies, I’ve seen others point out those stats as well. I won’t discount them, but my eyes saw Niese get very lucky in getting out of several dicey situations, and I’m not sure how stats account for that. In other words I’m taking those numbers with a grain of salt, and not buying into them 100%.

      Bottom line is that Niese needs to stay on top of his fastball specifically in order to get downward sinking movement and those easy ground balls. No stat in the world is going to change my opinion on that — because flat fastballs and flat cutters lead to hard-hit line drives, and it has nothing to do with luck.

      • argonbunnies November 15, 2011 at 7:34 pm
        Completely agreed on flat fastballs and flat cutters! But, in addition to producing line drives, those also don’t produce strikeouts. Niese is getting his excellent K rate from somewhere. He can’t be throwing too many flat pitches.

        I mean, we could say that the high K rate is the lucky part, but he’s kept it up long enough that I doubt that.

        As for luckily getting out of dicey situations, I remember a lot more times where he gave up a wind-aided fence-scraper home run with two guys on. Or where the lucky hits that every pitcher gives up happened to come sandwiched between legit line drive hits. I also remember some bad fielding by Wright behind Niese.

        So in the end, subjectively, I dunno. My eyes saw enough of a mixed bag that I’m willing to trust the stats. He doesn’t walk many, he strikes out a good number, and if he keeps that up, he’ll post better ERAs, no matter how many of the runs that he does allow leave us going, “Get on top of the ball, man!” I don’t see that as being different than any other tendency that leads any other pitcher to give up runs.

  3. NormE November 14, 2011 at 9:00 pm
    Good analysis Joe, and Timo I generally agree with you about the #s 4&5. However, I do feel that Niese is a tougher competitor than Pelf, who seems to have too many meltdowns.
    I wouldn’t lose any sleep if Alderson peddles Pelf, but I would want him to keep Niese.
    • Joe Janish November 14, 2011 at 10:41 pm
      Agreed. I’ve been impressed with Niese’s mental toughness from his MLB debut. He’s a tough kid who battles and generally does not allow his emotions to get the best of him. He also seems to “turn it up a notch” when needed. Makes him easy to root for.
    • Timo November 15, 2011 at 5:30 pm
      Norm, I TOTALLY agree with you about Pelf. Last year, I would not watch Mets games that Pelf started. I would always check during the game to see when he was gone so I could watch. I would LOVE to see the Mets trade or non-tender Big Pelf. He’s a head case. I don’t see Niese as a head case but HOPE the Mets don’t screw him up. I enjoy watching him pitch.
  4. Dave November 15, 2011 at 9:41 am
    Seems to me like a left-handed pitcher who needs to add a change-up to be more effective could find one heck of a tutor sitting around the Mets training room if he just thought to ask. I would love for Santana to start mentoring these younger guys in some sort of poor man’s Clemens/Pettitte relationship, minus the HGH and steroids.