Is Jon Niese the Next Glendon Rusch?

Matthew Poliout over at NBC’s Hardball Talk blog made an interesting point regarding the significant disparity between Jon Niese’s ERA. last season (4.40) and his FIP (3.36):

But there’s something to be very cautious about here, too. Niese appears to suffer from Glendon Rusch disease, in that he gives up hits at a much greater rate than one would expect given his strikeout and home run rates. The major league batting average on balls in play last year was .291. Niese finished at .333. Usually when something like that happens, it gets written off as a fluke and the pitcher gets talked about as a bounce-back candidate for the next year.

It doesn’t appear to be a fluke with Niese, though. He came in at .324 in 2010. In 2009, he was at .313 in Triple-A and .317 in five major league starts. In 2008, he was at .304 in the minors and .375 in three major league starts. In 2007, he was at .340 in high-A ball.

In Niese’s case, this likely has a lot to do with a lack of fastball movement. He can get swings and misses, particularly with his breaking balls, but hitters tend to line up hit fastball pretty well. It’s not something that figures to change, so Niese may well be one of those guys who is never quite as good as his peripherals.

Pouliot neglects to mention that the Mets also had the worst defense in all of baseball last season, at -59.7 UZR, so that might explain why Niese’s FIP was .96 lower in 2011 than his actual ERA.

As far as the minor league BABIP goes; many commenters pointed out that minor league defenses aren’t typically as good as major league defenses. True and false; minor league BABIP is higher than the major league average, but the difference isn’t as huge as people might think. While Niese’s BABIP was unusually high in the lower minors, his AA and AAA BABIP are right in line with the averages of the Eastern League and the International League. This makes sense; while minor league fielders are lacking in fundamentals compared to their major league peers, they compensate for it with more speed and athleticism.

That being said, Niese might very well be the type of pitcher that never lives up to his peripherals. The Mets had a very average defense in 2010, yet Niese’s BABIP was still high (.324).

Also, Niese’s xBABIP, according to the The Hardball Times xBABIP calculator, was .320 in 2011, and .314 in 2012.

Yes, thus far, Niese does seem to be particularly hittable (although another season of data would help), and I wouldn’t bet on him living up to his 3.36 FIP. However, he probably was not quite as bad as his 4.40 ERA suggests either. The answer is probably somewhere in between.

Matt is a high school student in New Jersey and avid Mets fan. He occasionally updates his blog at:
  1. mic December 12, 2011 at 5:53 am
    He already does not benefit from coaching and his catchers. His strength is off speed, so why is his ‘hittable’ FB used so often? Why is he not setting up his 12-6 curve more?
  2. mic December 12, 2011 at 6:03 am
    Personally, I dont think comparisons to Glendon are bad, but I think a lefty Bobby Jones (Bobby J. Jones not Bobby M. jones) are good too.
  3. Joe December 12, 2011 at 9:55 am
    Lol. I liked that guy, even if he has a short shelf life.
  4. argonbunnies December 12, 2011 at 10:08 pm
    All the factors that increase hit rate also reduce K rate. Every straight fastball Jon throws that is likely to get hit hard is also unlikely to contribute to a strikeout.

    The fact that Niese’s K rate is what it is tells us that his failings, whatever they are exactly, are no worse overall than those of a pretty decent MLB pitcher.

    Re: his high BABIPs thus far, anything’s possible, but bad luck in 2010 and crappy defense in 2011 are a much more obvious explanation.

    If you want cause for hope, check out King Felix’s seasonal BABIPs:
    For 3 full seasons he appeared magically hittable, but it didn’t last.