Jonathon Niese did his part last night to make sure the Mets weren’t swept out of Citi Field by the Atlanta Braves, tossing 8 innings of 1-run, 6-hit ball. It was a performance right up there amongst Niese’s best starts of the season, on par with what he did earlier this month in San Francisco and against Philadelphia during Fourth of July week. It was also just as good, better even, than Niese’s previous appearance on national television when he blanked St. Louis over 6 innings and 10 strikeouts on ESPN Sunday Night Baseball. And that one was during the same series as Johan Santana’s no-hitter and one of R.A. Dickey’s complete-game shutouts. How’s that for holding your own?
The previous mentioned starts are examples of greatness that Jon Niese will occasionally flash to the New York faithful. The problem is that just as often he’ll flash fans the greatness of the opposing batters instead of his own. While he’s given up an earned run or less in 10 starts this season, he’s given up 4+ earned runs in 7 starts. He was also the starter on July 8, the day the Mets began their slide into 2012 irrelevance, giving up 7 runs over 7 innings to the Cubs on All-Star Break Eve. As a result of this Jekyll/Hyde phenomenon on the mound, Niese’s numbers this season contrast greatly with the kind of pitcher you saw on Sunday Night: just a 9-6 record with a 3.67 ERA and 1.175 WHIP in 23 starts. His WHIP is brought down by the number of innings he’s pitched (an average of about 6 1/3), but he’s also allowed 19 home runs (about 1.2 per 9 innings).
I’ve said it at least a dozen different ways so far, but you get the point: Jon Niese is inconsistent. This would be a concern if Niese were looked at as the future anchor of the Mets’ pitching staff. Fortunately for him and the rest of us, he doesn’t have to work under that kind of pressure. Matt Harvey is already at the major league level (and doing much better than his 1-3 record would indicate). Zack Wheeler has made his way through the pipeline in good time and is likely about a year from the majors himself. Then there’s R.A. Dickey, whose days would be numbered if he were a conventional pitcher. But 37 years old is no big deal to a knuckleballer, and there’s a good chance Dickey could pitch well into his 40s. In all likelihood, Niese could pitch into his first option year in 2017 never needing to be more than the 4th man in the rotation. Throw in a healthy Dillon Gee next season, possibly another year out of Johan Santana, and a solid long man/spot-starter in Jeremy Hefner and the Mets have their rotation set for the foreseeable future.
So what does Jonathon Niese need to do to further his career in New York? Pretty much the same thing as he’s been doing, with a few minor altercations. For one, he needs to recognize, as Ron and Keith have pointed out on SNY, that certain pitches won’t work during certain innings, and he can’t keep trying what hasn’t been working and expect a different outcome. This will reduce the number of “big innings” he’ll fall victim to and probably knock those home run numbers down as well. In short, Niese needs to become more consistent from start to start. I love it when Niese turns in Amazin’ performances like the one from last night, but I’d almost trade a few of those excellent starts for mere quality starts if it would take away some of the God-awful ones. If he can keep his earned runs game-to-game from looking like a seismometer during a major earthquake, I’ll be good.
Jon Niese will never be the kind of fear-inducing southpaw that and Clayton Kershaw and Gio Gonzalez are. But that’s okay. While we would gladly welcome his sudden development into an ace, the way the future of the Mets’ rotation has been aligned, all Niese needs to do is be on the same level as a Chris Capuano or a Ted Lilly: a good major-league starter. Every team needs a solid 3rd or 4th starter, and if he stays healthy, Jonathon Niese can fill that role nicely for the next decade.