With R.A. Dickey shipped north of the border, the Mets starting rotation needs a new hero. I mean no slight towards another current Mets great pitcher, but if Sandy Alderson could have also somehow facilitated an additional trade, Johan Santana would be gone from Flushing by now as well. That is due primarily because of the organizational direction the Mets are headed. Rebuilding aside, Santana most likely will get the Opening Day assignment this year out of pure respect. Make no mistake however, this marks Johan’s last season with the Mets. As such, he gets to pass the proverbial baton on to the next pitcher in the relay. For in Johan’s situation, the Mets future is now. Among the other starting pitchers in the rotation, one of them will in turn need to put his hand out, and receive that baton from Johan. The earlier that happens, the better the Mets will be this year and beyond. But for now, the 2013 Mets just need a new ace. Why this year? Because the Mets need known pitching commodities heading into the 2014 season in life after Johan.
So who among the remaining pitchers in the Mets rotation will reach out and charge themselves with roles of leadership and deed? Shaun Marcum is here to fill a need for a fifth starter and does not project far into the Mets future, if at all. Dillon Gee is technically entering his fourth MLB season. However, in 2010 he only made five starts. After a full 2011 rookie season, his 2012 campaign was cut short after seventeen starts. Gee needed off-season surgery to rectify a blood clot discovered in his right shoulder. Mets fans like myself have a lot of confidence in Dillon Gee, as does the pitcher with his newly repaired shoulder. But for now, he will just be trying to reintegrate himself back into the rotation.
Matt Harvey made his MLB debut last season. In short time, he exhibited character traits and pitching skill that suggest he may, some day soon, assume the role as Ace of the New York Mets. Being as he pitched 59.1 innings last season, Matt can not qualify for this season’s Rookie of the Year award. But that is effectively what Matt Harvey is – a rookie. As a rule, we as fans, nor the organization for that matter, should not place any undue burden or pressure on this prized youngster, and certainly not within the context of the 2013 season. His task is simply trying to successfully navigate 200 innings pitched.
By process of elimination, you know exactly who this call to arms was intended for. Among Mets fans, there is one pitcher who’s time has come for distinguishing himself from not only his New York rotation mates, but from the rest of his National League middle of the rotation contemporaries. That said, Jon Niese is coming off his best season as a major league pitcher. His 2012 season was a big step forward for Jon. The challenge now is to see if Niese can take a giant leap forward for METkind. Working in his favor, Niese will not turn twenty-seven years old until October. His prime years as they say, are still ahead of him. The 2013 season is set up then, for Jon Niese to prove he is more than just a transient pitcher bridging the Mets failed past with their near future.
What then, can we reasonably expect out of Jon Niese, and project into his upcoming season? Let me start by saying if he doesn’t lead the staff in wins this season, it will be because he either woefully underachieved, suffered incredibly bad luck, or got hurt. Even a comeback player of the year type campaign by Johan Santana should not trump Jon Niese’s upcoming season.
Last year completed Jon Niese’s third full season as a starter. Here’s a look at his line:
Starts – 30 *tied career high
Wins – 13 *career best
Loss – 9 *career low; first time single digit
Win% – .591 *career best
WaaWL% – .564 *career best
WAR – 3.2 *by far career best mark
ERA – 3.40 *career best; first time posted era below 4.00
RA9 – 3.64 *by far career best mark
Innings – 190.1 *career high
Batters Faced – 788 *career high
Hits – 174 *career low
Hits/9 – 8.2 *career best
Walks – 49 *see below
Walks/9 – 2.3 *career best
WHiP – 1.172 *by far career best mark
Strikeouts – 155 *career best
*Strikeouts/9 – 7.3 *career LOW
*HR Allowed – 22 *Career HIGH
Twenty two home runs allowed – Over the last two seasons, with just one swing of the bat in the sixth or seventh innings, we fans have watched so many of Jon Niese’s quality performances gone for not. Much of the damage against Niese comes via solo homers, or with a runner on first. And most of the damage against Niese came from the fifth through eighth positions of the opposing batting order. Batters one through four batted .231, slugged .323 against him, and hit six home runs. Batters five through eight in the order batted .269 and slugged .457, with fifteen home runs.
One of the greatest detriments however to Jon Niese’s starts has been the anemic Mets offense. Leading into the Mets 2012 post all-star game collapse, in thirteen of his starts the line-up provided him with three runs or less. By June 10th, he already pitched well in six no-decisions. In July he pitched in two more no-decisions for a total of eight on the season. Over the first three months, the Mets lost eleven of Jon Niese’s starts in which he allowed a home run. In one instance, he surrendered four homers in one game. On two other occasions, he surrendered a pair. In the eight other starts/Mets losses, he allowed only one. Suffice to say, in any given game Jon Niese has been haunted by singular mistakes.
Jon has turned into Mr. Quality Start. That’s a tag some middle of the road pitchers might be content settling for. But as we view Jon Niese, the time seems right for him to separate himself from the also-ranks. Unlike his precarious relationship with the long ball, stamina is a slightly lesser issue. Of his thirty starts in 2012, he failed to pitch four or more innings twice, and both instances came in May. In two other starts, his game ended after five innings. The balance of his twenty six starts were six innings or better. Twelve starts lasted seven innings plus. He pitched eight complete innings twice. Jon Niese did not pitch a complete game. He also did quite well in the dog days of summer. From June through August, he made sixteen starts. Eleven times he turned in seven innings or better.
Once again, this year’s line-up will have a say in even Jon Niese’s best efforts. There is no getting around that. However, with the flick of a pitch, Jon Niese can arguably change the whole complexion of his career. Personally, I believe greater success lies in his curve ball. He usually clocks in the mid-70’s with it. I would prefer he bring up the velocity of his curve somewhat to add a little more bite if you will. Jon throws a two, and four seam fastball which he delivers in the low 90’s. This may seem trivial, but I believe seven or so more pounds of meat on his bones would go a long way towards getting Niese into the mid-90’s. That said, his cutter and change concern me. They still look one and the same to me, and I just don’t think they compliment his fast ball as well as an enhanced curve ball can. And I believe his, will. If we can find a game to build on, refer to June 3rd when he struck out ten St. Louis batters in six innings, which set his career high.
Circling back to R.A. Dickey, he made a considerable leap from his 2011 season to win last year’s Cy Young award. Dickey was a very good pitcher in 2011, just a little unlucky and snake bitten – similar to Jon Niese entering this season. Am I expecting Jon Niese to compete for the 2013 Cy Young? While that would be nice, if not remarkable, the realistic answer is no. That’s not what I had in mind. I believe I’m being pragmatic when I suggest he reach fifteen wins this season. I understand Wins are fast becoming an irrelevant stat. But in Jon Niese’s case I believe it is still a credible gauge, because with or without run support, pitching in the moment and surrendering a key home run have been the difference for him. It is therefore my opinion the next level for Jon Niese is only a pitch away. The starting rotation is screaming for someone to take charge. May Jon Niese seize the moment.