Is Jon Niese Figuring Things Out?


Pitcher Jon Niese has now put together three  consecutive strong starts, is he starting to figure things out?

When the Pittsburgh Pirates traded Neil Walker to the New York Mets for Jon Niese this past offseason, they expected they were getting a strong number three starter in return. Between 2012 and 2015 Jon Niese pitched 697 2/3 innings for the Mets posting a 3.65 ERA, 3.88 FIP, 3.80 xFIP, 2.54 BB/9, 0.89 HR/9, and a 7.8 WAR. Those numbers equate to being a strong number three starter.

So far this season Jon Niese has not been this pitcher, though. Prior to his start against the Colorado Rockies last night Niese had posted a 5.28 ERA, 5.98 FIP, 4.42 xFIP, and a -0.6 WAR in 46 innings pitched. Furthermore, Niese’s home run rate had spiked to 2.15 HR/9 and his walk rate was up to 3.33 BB/9.

With top pitching prospects Jameson Taillon, Tyler Glasnow, and Chad Kuhl all dominating AAA and all appearing to be close to be promoted to the Major Leagues shake ups to the Pirate rotation is coming. And for the first month of the season it appeared Jon Niese would not last in the Pittsburgh Pirates rotation. However, this might be changing. 

While Jon Niese’s overall numbers on the season still are not good, they are trending in the right direction as he has been much better in his last three starts. After six starts this season Niese had a 5.94 ERA, 5.76 FIP, and a 4.83 xFIP in 33 1/3 innings pitched. Niese was also walking too many batters (3.78 BB/9), giving up way too many home runs (1.89 HR/9), and his ground ball rate (49.5 percent) was too low.

After these six starts things were looking bleak for Jon Niese’s future in the Pirate rotation. But in his last three starts Niese has started to look more like the pitcher he was the past four seasons for the New York Mets. In those three starts, Niese has posted a 2.75 ERA in 19 2/3 innings pitched. So the question can be asked, is Jon Niese figuring things out?

Last night Jon Niese made arguably his best start as a Pittsburgh Pirate. In seven innings pitched Niese held one of the National League’s best lineups to just one run on four hits, one walk, zero home runs, and four strike outs. The most encouraging part of Niese’s start though were all of the ground balls.

When Jon Niese is at his best he is generating a lot of ground balls. 14 of the 21 outs recorded by Niese on Saturday night were via the ground ball, and this comes on the heels of his ground ball rate rising to 53 percent in his previous two starts. The fact Niese has been keeping the ball on the ground his last three starts is a sign that he may indeed be figuring things out.

In his last three starts Niese is averaging 1.83 BB/9, 6.41 K/9, 1.22 HR/9, and 7.32 H/9, all of which are improvements over his rates through the first six starts of the season. Jon Niese has also posted a very strong 1.02 WHIP his last three starts. Any time a pitcher is only averaging one hit or walk per inning pitched, their chances of allowing runs is going to go way down.

The reality is that it was not realistic that Niese was going to sustain the 2.15 HR/9 that he had through six starts. He was also being hurt by a BABIP that was well over .330. Now those numbers are starting to regress back to the norm, and as that has happened Jon Niese has been a much better pitcher.

After getting off to a terrible start to the season, Jon Niese has started to look a lot more like himself his last three starts. If Jon Niese can continue to pitch the way he has in these starts, then the Pirates will be getting the number three starter they were expecting when they traded for Niese. And getting the 2012-2015 Jon Niese would be a huge shot in the arm for the Pittsburgh Pirates rotation.