Jon Niese Has Been The Pirates Worst Starter

Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports /

Starting pitcher Jon Niese has struggled more than expected for the Pirates this season. In fact, Niese has been the Pirates worst starter.

Before the season the Pirates acquired left-handed starting pitcher Jon Niese from the New York Mets in exchange for second baseman Neil Walker. Many fans complained when the trade was made, but the numbers do not lie the previous four seasons Niese was a solid number three starting pitcher.

From 2012 through 2015 Niese pitched 697 2/3 innings for the New York Mets. In those 697 2/3 innings pitches Niese posted a 3.65 ERA, 3.88 FIP, 3.80 xFIP, 2.54 BB/9, 0.89 HR/9, and a 51 percent groundball rate. There is no denying those are the numbers of a solid number three starter.

I expected Niese to pitch like this number three starter in 2016, but so far Niese has pitched like someone who has no place in a Major League rotation. Niese has made six starts for the Pirates so far pitching 33 1/3 innings, in those six starts Niese has posted a 5.94 ERA, 5.73 FIP, a career worst 3.78 BB/9, and a career worst 1.89 HR/9.

Even though Jeff Locke may catch more rift from Pirate fans, Jon Niese has been the Pirates worst starter this season. While Jeff Locke has not pitched as well as his career norm, he still has posted a 4.37 FIP which is solid for a number five starter. Locke also has a career best 62.5 percent groundball rate and is allowing a career low 0.68 HR/9. 

For whatever reason, Niese appears to have lost something off his pitches this season. While velocity has not been an issue, he has still been getting hit harder than ever before. Each of Niese’s pitches have yielded an above league average wRC+. Niese has allowed a 143 wRC+ off his cutter, 153 off his fastball, and 213 off his change up.

Another big, and very worrisome, issue with Niese is that he is not missing bats this season. Hitters are swinging and missing at just 6.7 percent of Niese’s pitches this season. This ranks Niese 97th out of 103 qualified starting pitchers. Needless to say, that is not good.

Niese has never been a big swing and miss guy, but 6.7 percent is well below his career average of 8.7 percent. Two percent may not sound like a big deal, but when you’re a groundball pitcher like Jon Niese is every little bit counts. Niese needs to find a way to miss more bats moving forward.

Now, Niese’s BABIP of .330 should eventually come down. League average BABIP for a pitcher is .300, and the higher a pitcher’s BABIP is over the .300 the more they are due for some improvement. However, I am not sure how much improvement can be expected from Niese based solely on that due to his FIP and xFIP both still being well over five.

Next: Pittsburgh Pirates: Top 5 LHP propsects

Entering the season the fully expected Jon Niese to continue to provide the number three starter type production he had given the Mets the previous four seasons. However, that has not been the case this year. And it is hurting the Pirate rotation immensely.

So far this season the Pirates biggest issue has been their starting rotation, and Jon Niese is a big reason why. Jon Niese has to pitch better moving forward, both for his sake and the Pirates. Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow are coming, and fast, and if Niese does not start to improve he could very easily find himself in long relief.

* – Stats and pitch data via Fangraphs