Jon Niese succeeds despite the drop in his strikeout rate

Jon NieseJon Niese had a bare minimum Quality Start on Saturday but with the Mets offense delivering five runs early it was enough, with help from the bullpen, to pick up his fifth win of the season. It’s just another data point for those who want to “Kill the Win.” Earlier this year, Niese had a stretch of four starts where he had a 2.22 ERA in 28.1 IP yet came away with a no-decision each time out. Perhaps this is luck’s way of evening things out. After getting a no-decision in six of his first 10 QS, Niese has pitched three straight QS and received a decision in each of them, going 2-1 in the process.

For the year, Niese has spun 13 QS in 16 games, a fantastic rate. In two of his other three appearances, he missed by one-third of an inning, going 5.2 IP with 2 ER both times. It’s no wonder that at the real halfway point of the year, Niese sits with a 2.88 ERA.

He’s shaved nearly a run off his ERA from a season ago, as he finished 2013 with a 3.71 mark. Yet, his peripherals show a guy who has been essentially the same pitcher both years. Last season Niese had a 3.58 FIP and a 3.84 xFIP. This year those numbers are 3.48 and 3.79, respectively.

The key this year for Niese has been fewer baserunners. In 2014, he has a 1.19 WHIP, down from a 1.44 mark a season ago. Niese has done it on both sides of the coin, reducing both his walks and hits allowed. His BB/9 is down over half a walk per game, going from a 3.02 mark in 2013 to a 2.45 mark this season. And after allowing a .326 BABIP a season ago, his rate this year checks in a .281, noticeably beneath his lifetime .310 mark in the category.

But in a season where a lot of things seem to be going right, there is one trend with Niese that is a tiny bit of a worry. For the third straight season, he has seen a decline in his strikeout rate. After posting a 7.89 K/9 in 2011, Niese has gone to a 7.33 then to a 6.61 and finally to a 6.47 mark this season. No one season has been an alarming drop but cumulatively he’s lost nearly 1.5 strikeouts per game over this time span.

When we look at his pitch selection, we notice a few big changes in his arsenal. In 2011, Niese had an average fastball velocity of 90.6 but this year it stands at 88.7, a significant drop. Also, in 2011 he threw his curve nearly 23% of the time and his cutter nearly 17%. This year that ratio is flipped on its head, as he’s thrown the cutter 26.6% of the time and his curves make up 15.7% of his offerings.

Niese’s curve is a big breaker, of the 12-to-6 variety. When it’s on, it’s a big swing-and-miss pitch. According to Texas Leaguers, in 2011, he got a whiff from opposing batters on 12% of his curves, the highest rate for any of his pitches. Additionally, the pitch was put in play 17.8% of the time, the fewest of any of his offerings. This year his whiff rate on the curve is down to 9.4% but it’s still the best swing-and-miss pitch in his arsenal.

FanGraphs calculates Pitch Values for each offering in a pitcher’s repertoire. On a per 100 pitches basis, Niese’s curve was 0.56 runs above average in 2011 and this year it checks in at (-0.11). By contrast, his cutter has gone from (-1.63) in 2011 to 1.02 this season.

It’s hard to argue with throwing more cutters when he’s been so successful with the pitch. But it does bring two questions to mind. Can Niese’s drop in velocity be traced to the increased usage of the cutter? And did he abandon his curve because it wasn’t as successful or did throwing it fewer times lead to decreased performance? The latter is a classic chicken-and-the-egg conundrum.

Anecdotally, it does seem like he threw more curves when Josh Thole was behind the plate.

Ultimately, there’s more than one way to skin a cat and if Niese puts up a sub-3.00 ERA while throwing primarily cutters as compared to curves, not many people are going to care. However, aesthetically, I miss seeing his big breaking curve. In my mind, that was one thing that made him stand out from the countless pitching robots who throw cutters. If given the choice, my preference would be to watch the 2011-era Niese rather than the 2014-vintage one.

But it’s still a good day for the Mets when Niese takes the hill.

1 comment for “Jon Niese succeeds despite the drop in his strikeout rate

  1. Patrick Albanesius
    June 29, 2014 at 6:39 pm

    Cutters are usually thrown a tick slower than 4-seamers. Maybe Niese is adding a little cut to all of his fastballs now, accounting for a reduced velocity, but more movement. Just a thought. I too miss seeing that big hook.

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