2011 Season in Review: Jonathon Niese

The New York Mets went 77-85 in 2011. As suggested by the sub-par record, there were a fair share of ups and downs throughout the season. “2011 Season in Review,” which will be an on-going series, will analyze every single Mets player that picked up a ball or glove in 2011, for better or worse. This particular “2011 Season in Review” will take a look at starting pitcher, Jonathon Niese.Teams are always on the lookout for quality, young pitching.  In a division where the Mets face the likes of Josh Johnson, Tommy Hanson, Stephen Strasburg and others, it seems like everyone else has all the young talent.  However, the Amazins have a quality young starter of their own: lefty Jon Niese.

Even though he’s pitched in parts of four seasons (he made his Major League debut down the stretch in 2008), Niese will only turn 25 on October 27th.  His career record sits at just 22-23, and he did finish this season on the disabled list with an intercostal strain, but Niese quietly improved from 2010 to 2011.  Not a free agent until 2016, Niese’s success rate will have an impact on the Mets overall record.

In 157.1 innings this past season, Niese compiled an 11-11 record, with a 4.40 ERA (3.28 xFIP, 3.42 SIERA), 1.411 WHIP, 7.9 K/9, 2.5 BB/9 and 3.14 K/BB, leading to an fWAR of 2.7.  In each one of those categories (except ERA), Niese improved, however slightly, from 2010.  And while a 4.40 ERA isn’t great, his xFIP, SIERA and high BABIP (Niese’s sat at .333, while the average this year was .291) indicate that Niese performed better than his record and earned run average indicate.

So why was Niese more successful in 2011?  The first reason would be the increased use of his curveball.  In 2010, Niese threw the hook 14.6% of the time, and it was worth 0.82 runs below average per 100 pitches, according to FanGraphs.  Last season, however, Niese threw his curve 22.9% of the time and it was worth 0.57 runs above average per 100 pitches-far and away his best pitch.  What’s troubling is that Niese didn’t have a lot of success with any of his other pitches.  His heater averaged 90.6 miles per hour, so Niese wasn’t going to blow anyone away, and was worth 0.43 runs below average per 100 pitches.  His changeup, thrown 5.1% of the time at 84.5 mph, improved markedly from 2010, but was still worth 0.15 runs below average per 100 pitches (in 2010 it was worth 2.99 runs below average per 100 pitches).  And his cutter, which Niese threw 25.6% of the time in 2010 and had a value of 0.31 runs above average per 100 pitches, was thrown just at a 17.2% rate in 2011 and worth 0.43 runs below average per 100 pitches.  There is nothing wrong with Niese using his curve more since it is effective, but in order to excel at the Major League level, the southpaw will have to improve his heater and one of his secondary pitches (most likely his cutter) significantly.  Fortunately, Niese has shown that he has the tools to throw each pitch effectively; it is just a matter of developing consistency.

There were several other factors that led to Niese’s 2011 improvement.  His ground ball rate was at 51.5%, the best of his career, and his fly ball rate dropped to 27.9%.  In addition, despite throwing just 48.9% of his pitches inside the strike zone (down from 51.1% in 2010), opposing hitters swung and missed at pitches out of the zone at a 33.9% rate, up from 27.9% the previous year.  Niese also pitched deeper into games this season, averaging six innings per start.

Niese still has much to work on, but the talent is there.  As a lefty with solid command, a high strikeout rate, and a plus curveball, Niese could develop into a number two starter if he continues to hone his other pitches, generate grounders and reduce the number of hits allowed (he allowed 10.2 per nine innings ’11, but the high BABIP could help explain some of that).  At the very least, he should be a very solid middle of the rotation pitcher, and should be in the Mets plans for the next few years at least.

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