Jonathon Niese‘s season ended almost a month ago on a very down note. The 24 year-old hurled four innings against the Phillies on August 23, surrendering ten hits, eight earned-runs, one walk, while striking out six batters. It was not only the most earned-runs he’d given up all season, but also, in his entire career.
Yet, despite the brutal finale, Niese has arguably enjoyed his finest overall season in the Major Leagues. Certainly his eleven wins, 4.40 ERA, and 1.41 WHIP don’t reflect that sentiment, but a deeper look into Niese’s peripherals exposes his move toward elitehood.
Niese has never really been much of a strikeout machine, but his K/9 has steadily increased year-to-year. In 2009, Niese posted a 6.31 K/9, which was upped to 7.67 in 2010, and now stands at 7.89 this season. His improved strikeout abilities could be the result of the youngster’s matured repertoire. Even though the southpaw has seen his usually good cutter become less effective (from 3.7 runs above average to -5.5 this season), his fastball has improved (from -8.1 runs above average to -0.6), and his curveball has become a bread and butter pitch (from -2.6 runs above average to 5.0). Niese’s array of four usable pitches might also explain the spike in non-strikes opposing hitters swing at (from 27.9% to 33.9%).
More importantly than increased strikeouts, Niese finally honed the good control he exhibited during 2009 in Triple-A. While Niese owned a league-average 3.33 BB/9 combined from 2008 to 2010 in the Majors, his 2.5 BB/9 this season was a key difference maker. As nice as the great control has been, Niese still–for the second season in-a-row–let-up too many hits. His 10.2 Hits/9 in 2011 was worse than last season (10.0), and in 2009 too (9.5). This increasing hit trend might have to do with his continual spike in BABIP (from .317 to .324 to .333). To make matters worse, Niese’s elite 51.5% GB% has been completely wasted by the Mets spotty defense. One has to think that if Niese had a solid infield behind him, his pedestrian 4.40 ERA would look more like his ace-worthy 3.26 xFIP.
It’s difficult to project whether Niese will become a full-fledged ace pitcher in 2012 since so much of his future success is contingent on his surrounding cast. Hopefully a healthy Ike Davis and a re-signed Jose Reyes will make the defensive picture a little clearer, but for the time being, fans might have to wait a bit for Jonathon Niese’s high ceiling to be reached.