Can Jonathon Niese be an ace?

In a season where there might not be a whole lot to cheer for, outside of the inevitable debuts of Travis d’Arnaud and Zack Wheeler and the continued maturation of Matt Harvey, something that Mets fans can take pleasure in is watching homegrown southpaw Jon Niese try to take the next step forward and bring himself into the next tier of starting pitchers.

Over the past three full seasons, we’ve seen Niese take some giant steps forward, improving his stock from fourth starter ceiling to a bona-fide number two starter and de facto ace of the Mets staff.  He has done so by cutting his walk rate from a decent 3.21 BB/9 in 2010, to a stingy 2.32 BB/9 in 2012, while maintaining a strikeout rate of more than seven per nine innings.

The peripheral stats have always, at the major league level, indicated that Niese was a better pitcher than his win-loss record and ERA indicated.

He struggled with incredibly high BABIPs in his first two full seasons, posting a .324 mark in 2010 and .333 in 2011.  For this reason, Niese had never been able to perform close to his FIP or xFIP marks.  For example, in 2011, he posted a 3.38 xFIP, yet his ERA ended up at 4.40.

Last year, however, it all changed for Niese.  Opponents had only a .272 BABIP, his ERA was better than his FIP, and he seemed to finally have everything click.

While it may be easy to simply write this off as luck or regression to the mean (the mean here being the .300 BABIP that serves as the approximate midpoint on the normal distribution), it is likely that a simple change in Niese’s approach is responsible for a significant portion of the improvement.

The most significant change for Niese last season was a lesser dependence on the four-seam fastball and a heavier dependence on the cutter.

In 2011, 54.9% of the pitches Niese threw were four-seamers, and his cutter accounted for 17.2% of pitches.  In 2012, the four-seamer was only used 49% of the time, and the cutter was up to 27.8%.

Good thing too, because last season the cutter went from his worst pitch (-6.9 runs above average according to PITCHf/x) to his best (10.6 runs above average).

To put that in perspective, it was the best cutter in baseball last season by that metric.  The next best belonged to Yu Darvish, whose cutter was valued at 7.3 runs above average.

The increased reliance upon such a dominant pitch could very well be responsible for the giant step forward Niese appeared to take last season, as well as his early season successes in 2013.

If Niese can demonstrate that the success of his cutter last year was no fluke, and can maintain a reasonable BABIP (somewhere in the .285-.305 range), there is no reason to doubt that he can indeed take another step forward in 2013 and become a legitimate ace, instead of just the by-default ace he is now.

For those doubting the possibility of Niese blossoming into an ace, here’s some of Baseball-Reference’s player comparisons for him; Gio Gonzalez, Dan Haren, and Roy Halladay.  Not bad company at all.

11 comments for “Can Jonathon Niese be an ace?

  1. April 9, 2013 at 2:29 am

    I can only reiterate what I have been saying since spring training. The starting pitching will not be as bad as everyone thinks. The offense will be uneven at times. The achilles heel is still going to be the bullpen. If the Mets can hold on until the All-Star break and be in contention for a wild card then Sandy will have to do something to not only improve the bullpen for the second half but with an eye on 2014 as well.

    • Jake
      April 9, 2013 at 2:12 pm

      Who ever thought that the starting pitching was going to be bad? It was clearly the only strength on this team.

      • Joe Vasile
        April 9, 2013 at 3:40 pm

        I agree. Coming into the season, the starting pitching was the one big thing I was excited to see. Niese had a promising year, Harvey is Harvey, Gee was pitching relatively well before the blood clot problems, Wheeler is waiting in the wings…the pitching is one of the few strengths this team has.

      • Name
        April 9, 2013 at 5:57 pm

        Actually, there were legimate concerns going into the season(and there still are). The rotation is 5 spots, and you need to evaluate all spots. It’s easy to look at the front end and forget the back end. Each team usually has 2-3 good starters on their squad, it’s the 4 and 5 guys that seperate the good and bad.

        Right now, our 4-5 combo is Hefner and Laffey. At best you could call them almost league-average. Hefner performed well his 1st time thru and Laffey was Ok… but we’re not sure if they can perform that well in the future.

        • April 9, 2013 at 6:21 pm

          Yep, that’s very true.

          Hefner and Laffey were very good sources of depth. But because of the season-ending injury to Santana and who-knows-how-long injury to Marcum, we needed our depth on Day 1. But who knows — maybe this is going to be like 2011.

          That year, we hoped to cobble two rotation spots out of Capuano, Gee, Santana and Young. And we did, although no one saw it breaking down to 27 starts for Gee, 26 for Capuano, 4 for Young and 0 for Santana. Maybe this year it’s 27 starts for Hefner and 10 each for Laffey, Marcum and Wheeler.

  2. Mark
    April 9, 2013 at 2:49 pm

    Niese gives up too many home runs to be an ace. I’ve read that a pitcher’s HR/FB% is typically uncontrollable, but Niese is consistently poor in this area. So if this proves to be coincidental, then he can absolutely be an ace, but it’s getting harder to imagine it’s something that will get better moving forward.

    • Joe Vasile
      April 9, 2013 at 3:57 pm

      Niese’s career HR/FB ratio is 11.3%, and the league average is about 10.5% (one of the reasons that xFIP adjusts this ratio to 10.5% automatically). If Niese can keep his walks trending down, as they have been, that would go a long way, along with a slight increase in K/9. I think the development of his cutter will help the home run issues, because he’ll be able to run it in on the hands of right-handed batters, who are responsible for 46 of the 60 home runs Niese has given up in his career. Could be nothing, could be something worth watching, though.

  3. Metsense
    April 9, 2013 at 10:14 pm

    A very strong arguement and it would be nice if it happened but I’m very satisfied with him as a #2 pitcher. The Mets did their homework when they gave him that contract.

  4. za
    April 10, 2013 at 2:12 pm

    Also in that list of comps were Odalis Pérez and Randy Wolf.

    • Joe Vasile
      April 10, 2013 at 3:51 pm

      Odalis Perez was coming off of a 4.6 WAR season with the Dodgers at age 25, and Wolf, a 4.2 WAR season with the Phillies. Their career trajectories were different than Halladay, Haren and Gonzalez, but at they were both coming off of excellent seasons and looked primed to become aces.

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