Tonight Is An Important Start For Jon Niese

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

Pirate left-handed pitcher Jon Niese has struggled mightily this season, and that needs to change beginning tonight.

This season, Jon Niese has been the Pirates worst starting pitcher. Even though out of habit some people might say that it has been Jeff Locke, it has in fact been Niese. The Pirates traded for Niese expecting him to be their number three starter, and he needs to begin to pitch like it.

On the season Jon Niese has pitched 33 1/3 innings in six starts. In those 33 1/3 innings Niese has posted a 5.94 ERA, 5.74 FIP, 4.78 xFIP, and is averaging 1.89 HR/9 and 3.78 BB/9. While Niese’s BABIP of .330 does indicate he is due for some better results, the rest of his metrics indicate that there may not be much improvement on the horizon.

Both Jon Niese’s walk rate and home run rate are the worst of his career. Also, his swing and miss rate is the lowest of his career. Jon Niese currently owns a 6.7 percent swing and miss rate, which ranks 97th out of 103 qualified pitchers in the Major Leagues.

In my opinion, swing and miss rate is a great way to measure how good a pitcher’s stuff has been. If a pitcher is not generating swings and misses, odds are their stuff has not been very effective and/or lacks the movement needed to generate swings and misses. A lack of deception due to a poor mechanics from a pitcher is always a possibility as well.

Ultimately, whatever the issue is, Jon Niese is simply not generating enough swings and misses this season. If this does not begin to change, there’s a good chance that Niese’s struggles will continue.

Another issues with Jon Niese this season is is abnormally low ground ball rate. The past five seasons Jon Niese has been primarily a ground ball pitcher with a 52.6 percent ground ball rate during this time. This season Niese’s ground ball rate has fallen to 49.5 percent as his fly ball rate has risen. This is a big reason why Niese’s home run rate has spiked from 0.87 HR/9 the past five seasons to 1.89 HR/9 this season.

All of this brings us to tonight, when Jon Niese will take the ball to pitch against the Cincinnati Reds. Unfortunately for Niese, tonight’s start will come at Great American Ballpark which is arguably the best hitter’s park in all of baseball.

Top Pirate pitching prospects Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow are both currently dominating AAA, and this is why tonight’s start is an important one for Niese. Jameson Taillon has a 1.19 ERA, 1.86 FIP, 0.76 WHIP, 0.89 BB/9, 7.71 K/9, and has not allowed a home run in 30 1/3 innings pitched this season at AAA. In 33 innings pitched Tyler Glasnow has a 1.64 ERA, 1.84 FIP, 1.03 WHIP, 3.55 BB/9, 13.09 K/9, and has allowed just one home run.

Taillon is most likely Major League ready, with Super Two being the lone factor holding him back. Well, we are one month from the usual Super Two Date (June 10th) so Taillon will not be in the Minor Leagues much longer. Glasnow still needs to work on his fastball command, as well as improving his change up. For these reasons he is probably further off than Taillon is, but he will be in the Major League rotation some time this summer.

Obviously Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano are entrenched in the Pirate rotation and going nowhere. This means two out of the three between Jon Niese, Jeff Locke, and Juan Nicasio will be on the outside looking in at some point this summer. Back in Spring Training I would have said that it undoubtedly would have been Locke and Nicasio, but that may not be the case now.

All in all Juan Nicasio, despite only having two pitches, has done a nice job for the Pirates. In 31 1/3 innings pitched Nicasio has a 3.16 ERA, 4.13 FIP, and 3.90 xFIP. While Nicasio is averaging an impressive 9.19 K/9, his walk rate of 4.31 BB/9 and home run rate of 1.15 HR/9 are both too high. Finally, Nicasio has allowed the least amount of hard contact in all of Major League Baseball. So hitters are not exactly teeing off on Nicasio’s pitches.

Even though Nicasio has done a nice job for the Pirates this season, I do expect him to eventually be moved to the bullpen just because that’s where he is best suited. However, I do not expect Nicasio to be the first pitcher yanked from the rotation which means it will be between Locke and Niese when Jameson Taillon is called up at some point in the next month.

Jeff Locke has been decisively better than Jon Niese has this season. Locke’s ERA (4.68) is more than a full run lower than Niese’s, and his FIP (4.66) and xFIP (4.61) are superior to Niese as well. Furthermore, Locke has not been giving up home runs like it’s going out of style as his home run rate is a solid 0.83 HR/9.

Pittsburgh Pirates
May 7, 2016; St. Louis, MO, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Jeff Locke (49) pitches against the St. Louis Cardinals during the first inning at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports /

Now, Jeff Locke’s overall numbers do not look all that great, despite being quite a bit better than Niese’s, but keep in mind he appears to have turned a corner. After getting hammered for eight runs in three innings against the Padres on April 20th Locke has made three strong starts. In his last three starts Locke has a 2.84 ERA, 3.12 FIP, 3.50 xFIP, 2.84 BB/9, 7.11 K/9, and has allowed just one home run in 19 innings pitched. Actually, outside of the San Diego disaster Locke has a 3.03 ERA on the season. So while Niese is trending downward, Locke is trending upward.

Next: Pirates Continue Their Dominance Of The Cardinals

When you combine the fact Jeff Locke has been the better pitcher this season with the fact Jon Niese has pitched out the bullpen before, and successful at that, I believe Locke would currently hold an edge over Niese to remain in the Pirate rotation. Given Niese’s success with the Mets the past five seasons that is something I never thought I would say in Spring Training, but crazy things happen in baseball.

If I had to guess, I would say that the Pirates are currently leaning toward moving Jon Niese to the bullpen and optioning Kyle Lobstein to AAA when Jameson Taillon is called up. Jon Niese will have four or five more starts to turn his season around and avoid this fate, and that starts tonight. That’s what makes tonight’s start for Niese very important, because he very well might be pitching for his spot in the Pirate rotation right now.