2012 Analysis: Jon Niese

Would you consider 2012 to be a “breakout season” for Jonathon Niese?

Last November, my evaluation of Jonathon Niese included two major concerns: would he ever have enough stamina to sustain a full 162-game season, and would he ever give up his sometimes detrimental love affair with the cutter.

I concluded thusly:

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.

As it turned out, Niese stayed with the cutter — in fact, he increased his use of it — and was a solid #3 starter who showed flashes of becoming a #2.

So there, Joe Janish.

However, I’m still not sold on over-reliance on the cutter being the best thing for Niese long-term. Call me stubborn, or a rock head, but I’m sticking with my theory for at least one more year. Hey, if I wait long enough, eventually I’ll be right — right?

In all seriousness, let’s look at the numbers. Niese made 30 starts, tossed 190 innings, and went 13-9 with a 3.40 ERA — a full run below the 4.40 ERA posted in 2011. He likely would’ve had closer to 15 or 16 wins had the Mets given him more offensive support and/or better relief. His WHIP was a very impressive 1.17, and he finished the year with four solid starts in September. In fact, he seemed to get stronger as the summer wore on; his ERA dropped from 3.73 in the first half to 3.01 in the second, and his heaviest workload came in August, when he logged 41 innings. Further, he completed 6 innings or more in every single start from June 3rd to the end of the season, and increased his average per-start pitch count from 95 to 101. Niese did all this while throwing 10.6% more cutters compared to 2011. So why am I still not convinced that Niese will follow in the footsteps of Andy Pettitte?

For one, Niese still had trouble throwing both a good cutter and knee-buckling curveball in the same game; it happened maybe four or five times out of his 30 starts. I understand that it’s rare for a pitcher to have all of his pitches working at the same time, but this particular instance, it has to do with arm angle. Niese has a tendency to drop his arm slot when throwing an abundance of cutters, which results in the flattening of his fastball and either hanging curveballs (thrown from a low slot) or telegraphed curveballs (because the arm angle raises). More importantly, that lower arm angle puts more strain on the shoulder and elbow. Added strain plus bigger workload equals higher chance of injury.

There’s something else, too, about Niese’s 2012 — he might have been lucky. Looking at more finely grained numbers and some advanced stats, it appears that Niese’s sparkling ERA was an anomaly. Compared to 2011, his ground-ball rate lowered a bit, while his fly ball and line drive rates went up a tick; batters also swung and missed slightly less often. Usually, more line drives mean more hits, and sometimes, more fly balls result in more homeruns — but neither were the case.

Perhaps more to the point are a few advanced stats that I don’t pretend to fully understand — nor completely trust — but might help explain things a bit more. First, batters had a .276 BABIP against Niese, which is about 25 points below league average. That could be because Niese was good at preventing hitters from getting good wood on the ball, and/or good at getting hitters to hit the ball at fielders — it did seem to me that Mets infielders were often perfectly positioned, and I assumed it was due to a combination of fantastic scouting and pitch location. But it could also be due to luck; I’m not really sure. (BTW, batters had a .344 BABIP vs. Niese in 2011.) Then there is Niese’s xFIP, which increased from 3.28 in ’11 to 3.64 in ’12. Generally, you want to see that number decrease, but I’m not sure whether .36 is a significant change (help from one of the statheads, please?). Niese’s tERA and SIERA numbers also increased a bit, but again, not sure if the increase was significant; maybe the point is that those numbers weren’t much different from 2011 — nor 2010, for that matter. (For those unaware, xFIP, tERA, and SIERA are all stats that attempt to measure a pitcher’s effectiveness independent of defense.) Maybe these stats tell us that Niese’s 2012 wasn’t as much of a “breakout” as it appears from the “conventional” numbers; perhaps Niese is the same pitcher he always was, but was unlucky prior to 2012. If you are into advanced metrics, please weigh in on this with your thoughts in the comments.

2013 Projection

Stats or no stats, I was pleased with Niese’s progress in terms of stamina and game-to-game consistency in 2012, and expect him to be a similar pitcher in 2013. I do hate his reliance on the cutter, and will go to the grave believing he’d be a better (and healthier) pitcher if he focused more on his overhand curveball and fastball, but I love his competitiveness and know that alone makes him at worst a solid #3 on a championship team. His team-friendly contract, age, and track record make him a lucrative trade chip, so I won’t be surprised if the Mets include him in a blockbuster deal that nets multiple prospects. However, that’s not necessarily what I want to happen — I’d rather have the opportunity to watch him pitch once every five days for the Mets.


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. DaveSchneck November 13, 2012 at 11:57 pm
    Yes, the lower the xFIP the better, but 3.64 is still good. Advanced stats or not, Niese looks to have improved in 2012 and still can get better. Pettite is a good comp. Niese is young, affordable, controlled, and proven at the MLB level. Oh, and the only lefty starter anywhere near Flushing in the whole organization. Alderson best get back a king’s ransom if he deals this guy. Omar’s regime, the one that “left the system baree”, scored big with this pick, while Sandy’s regime, the one that is “building from within”, let their 2nd round pick this year walk over chump change.
  2. argonbunnies November 14, 2012 at 5:33 am
    Yeah, .276 BABIP is a bit lucky, but .300 is no longer average with offense declining around the league, so it’s not THAT lucky. The .344 of last year was extremely unlucky. That’s where most of the difference between 2011-2012 lies: in 2011, every bloop over the infield fell in for a hit.

    If Niese “broke out” in 2012 in any way beyond staying healthy, it was by continuing to lower his walk rate. But his K rate declined too, so this may be more a change in approach than an overall improvement in effectiveness. (By the way, declining Ks is the reason for the worse xFIP.)

    To me, 2012 Niese looked just like 2010 Niese, but with better luck, and not tiring in the second half. This gives me some confidence in his consistency, but lessens my optimism for his upside. My best-case scenario for Niese is that he continues to lower the walks without sacrificing too much else. I dunno if he has the stuff and repertoire to throw a ton of strikes without getting hit around, though. A trade partner who looks at Jon’s age and envisions substantial improvement might be worth talking to.

    • Joe Janish November 14, 2012 at 11:32 pm
      Thanks, AB. FYI, I do know that people no longer accept .300 as a “standard” for BABIP; however, the average BABIP for all hitters in the NL last year — per baseball-reference.com — was .300.


      • argonbunnies November 15, 2012 at 5:57 pm
        Oh, no way! D’oh. Thanks for the link! I had no idea the Cards and Giants both topped a .315 BABIP; weird.

        Last 2 years in the NL: .299 and .296, so I guess .300 actually still is close enough.

        So, yeah, Niese got a little lucky. Does any team out there think he’s better than he is, and will give us a haul for him?

      • argonbunnies November 15, 2012 at 6:01 pm
        Oh, wait a sec, I see what’s going on here. The league keeps allowing fewer hits, but most of those are homeruns, so BABIP (which doesn’t factor in homers) stays about the same, or even rises a little (from .295 in 2001). This is why BABIP is a misleading stat for looking at hitters, especially power hitters.

        Anyway, still, Niese = unlucky in 2010 & 2011, lucky in 2012.