A Deeper Look At Jon Niese
On December 9 the Pirates traded hometown favorite and second baseman Neil Walker to the New York Mets in exchange for left handed starting pitcher Jon Niese. Many people in the Pirate fan base were not happy with this trade, and many immediately dubbed Jon Niese as being a bad pitcher. However, that is not true.
Many fans were upset because Neil Walker, despite being an average player who is in decline, was a fan favorite and viewed as a great player simply because he was from Pittsburgh. Also, many fans immediately disregard every and any player the Pirates sign/acquire due to an illogical hatred for Neal Huntington. For example, Francisco Liriano, Russell Martin, AJ Burnett, Francisco Cervelli, Mark Melancon, JA Happ, etc., etc. were all viewed as awful players when Huntington signed/acquired them.
Jon Niese is a solid number three pitcher, and pitching at left handed pitcher friendly PNC Park should only further solidify this. So despite the fact the hometown boy was traded for him, it is time for Pirate fans to begin to learn that Jon Niese is a solid number three pitcher.
Since the start of the 2012 season Niese has posted a 3.65 ERA, 3.88 FIP, 3.80 xFIP, has allowed just 0.89 HR/9, 2.54 BB/9, a 7.8 WAR, and has a 50.4% groundball rate in 697 2/3 innings pitched. All of those numbers are very solid for a number three pitcher, but the way some Pirate fans talk about Niese you would think he was some borderline Major League bum.
For comparisons sake, the Major League average ERA for a starting pitcher is 3.75. So based on ERA, Jon Niese has been a slightly above average starting pitcher the past four seasons. But since I am a sabermetrician who does not like ERA, we’re going to look at FIP and xFIP. The league average FIP and x FIP is 3.80-4.10, so once again based on FIP and xFIP Niese has been average to slightly above average the past four seasons.
Pitching at PNC Park will also help Niese. Due to PNC Park’s massive left field, it is a ballpark that is very friendly to left handed pitchers. Also, working with Ray Searage benefits everyone and anyone so Niese will also have those two things going for him the next three seasons.
Niese also fits the Pirate mold of being a groundball pitcher that should benefit greatly from the Pirates’ defensive shifts. Also, the Pirates will look for Niese to pitch inside more often which should help to increase his groundball rate even more.
Last season, Niese was hurt my poor defense in New York and he made that clear after being traded. Niese told the New York Daily News this after being traded, “I’m sure what I’ll appreciate more than anything is the way (the Pirates) play defense. I’m looking forward to that.” You can read the whole article here.
The combination of Niese’s ability to induce groundballs with the way the Pirate defense shifts around and how strong of a defensive team the Pirates are should benefit Niese greatly as well. I truly believe that Niese will have a strong season for the Pirates in 2016.
Fangraphs projects Niese to post a 3.69 ERA, 3.91 FIP, and a 1.3 WAR in 159 innings pitched this season. If Niese is able to give the Pirates that sort of production this year, the Bucs rotation will be in very good shape. Especially since, barring injury, I would expect Niese to throw more than 159 innings.
Last season Jon Niese did regress some after having a very strong three year run from 2012-2014. In 176 2/3 innings pitched Niese posted a 4.13 ERA, a 4.11 xFIP, and a career worst 1.02 HR/9. Let’s be honest though, those numbers still are not all that bad.
Niese also had to pitch out of the bullpen some and that did not go well. Niese had a .429 batting average against, and an OPS against of .895 as a reliever. As a starter, these numbers were just .277 and .761. Some pitchers are just better suited to be starters, and Jon Niese appears to be one of those pitchers.
Niese also had to deal with off the field issues that had a negative effect on him last season. On the day his wife was due with their first child last year Niese chose to pitch instead of go to his child’s birth. Niese got hammered for six runs in three innings pitched, and after exiting the game caught a flight to Toledo to be with his wife.
Niese watched the birth of his daughter via FaceTime while on the plane. After this, Niese was away from the team for a few days to be with his wife and newborn daughter. As a result, Niese began to bounced around between the Mets rotation and bullpen and struggled the rest of the season.
Starting with the game against the Dodgers in which he allowed six runs in three innings Niese posted a 5.46 ERA, 4.88 FIP, and 4.20 xFIP over the course of his final 64 1/3 innings pitched last season. Prior to this start, him not skipping it to go see the birth of his daughter, and then being bounced around between the rotation and the bullpen Niese had a 3.36 ERA, 4.15 FIP, and 4.06 xFIP in 112 1/3 innings pitched.
I know someone will counter with this, so let’s address it. Yes, Jon Niese has pitched poorly this spring, but Spring Training results mean absolutely nothing. Francisco Liriano has been bad this spring as well, but are Pirate fans worried about him? Didn’t think so.
Spring Training is a time for pitchers to work on things and that is exactly what Niese is doing. He even said as much after this last start when he got charged with four earned runs in six innings pitched against the Orioles. When a pitcher is trying to work on things that means they are going to throw a certain pitch in a certain spot no matter what, even if it is something they would never do in a meaningful game.
I believe Niese will post numbers similar to, if not better than what Fangrpahs projects in 2016. Niese will benefit greatly from the PNC Park and Ray Searage affect and I believe will be a very good addition to the 2016 Pittsburgh Pirates’ starting rotation. However, unfortunately, Pirate fans will probably never like Niese because not only was he traded for Neil Walker he also pulled off an amazing troll job by taking Walker’s former number in 18.