FanPost

Another Pitchf/x Look At Jon Niese: How Can He Improve His Pitches Next Year? Part 1: The Cutter And Four-Seam Fastball

Niesefullpitchmovements_medium
Figure 1
The Movement and Speed of Jon Niese's pitches this year. 

To read:

Vertical Movement: The amount of inches the ball drops/"rises" as compared to how we would expect gravity to make a pitch drop. So a fastball with Positive 10 Vertical Movement "RISES" 10 inches more than it should if gravity was the only force acting on it and a curveball with -10 Vertical Movement drops 10 inches more than a pitch thrown that is just acted on by gravity.

Horizontal Movement:  The graph is from the view of a catcher or umpire behind home plate. So a pitch that's on the left side of the graph (and has "negative horizontal movement") moves in on righties and away from lefties. A pitch that's on the right side of the graph moves in on lefites and away from righties. 

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The expectations for Jon Niese coming into this year were not very high. In Spring Training, there were thoughts that he was competing for the fifth starter spot with Hisanori Takahashi and Fernando Nieve. In an interview, Kevin Goldstein stated "he's no more than a No. 4 starter, and he's not even that yet." 

And then the kid exceeded those expectations with a 4.20 ERA, a 4.10 FIP, and a 3.94 xFIP. For reference, that xFIP is pretty damn good, being better than say, Tampa Bay ace David Price. Now I'm not going to even come close to saying that Niese is a better pitcher than Price (he's not), but you could argue that if you remove luck and defense, that the two pitchers had the same performance this year (though Price pitched more innings). To add fuel to this fire:  Baseball Prospectus's stat, SIERA, lists Niese as the best of the Mets' four regular starters (1. Niese, 2. Dickey, 3. Santana, 4. Pelfrey). Oddly enough, Baseball-Reference has Niese as below replacement, but this seems due to 16 unearned runs in their RA Scale (subtracting -1.6 WAR from an ERA Scaled-WAR).

The question now for Jon Niese is simple:  Can he improve further? In this article, I take a look at what pitches Niese could reasonably be expected to improve and how he might be able to do that.

There are three very obvious ways* for a Pitcher to Improve:
1.  Improve his strikeout rate
2.  Improve his walk rate
3.  Improve his ability to get ground balls (And thus avoid giving up HRs).

*There are other ways to improve, but these three represent the major three ways to improve as a pitcher and will be what I limit this article to talking about.

Now it's important to note the obvious here -- these three rates are not independent of the others. A pitcher could drastically reduce his walk rate by aiming fastballs down the middle on every pitch, but the other 2 rates would decline so much as to make this a bad idea. Similarly, one could probably improve one's K rate by missing the zone more frequently, but this is also going to hurt the walk rate. 

So to see where Niese can improve, lets look at his individual pitches. As Figure One showed above, Niese has five pitches: A four-seam fastball (the red dots), a two-seam fastball (the orange), a changeup (the yellow), a cutter/cut-fastball (the green), and a curveball (the purple). I'm going to take a look at each of these pitches in turn.

Now before we start I want to express the importance of one key thing: Niese's splits. As a left-handed pitcher, over 80% of the batters that Niese faced this year were right-handed batters (RHBs). The end result is twofold: First, Niese's performance against RHBs is far more important than against LHBs, and will be treated as such. Second, the sample size for Niese's results against LHBs is smaller than I like, and thus I won't treat it especially as indicative of future performance.

(Incidentally, Niese's splits this year were odd in that they were reverse of the usual: he was better against RHBs than LHBs. A good deal of this was probably luck (bad luck with HRs), but it's possible that these splits result in him seeing an increased about of LHBs next year. That said, as a LHP, he'll still face such a substantially larger amount of right-handed batters than left-handed ones such that his improvements should mostly be focused upon them.  Mostly). 

Anyhow, onto the pitches:

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Niese's Four-Seam Fastball

Niese_four_seam_locations_mediumFigures 2 and 3: The Location of Jon Niese's Four-Seam Fastballs this year in the strike zone against Right and Left Handed Batters.  The Graph is from a catcher's point of view: So a pitch that is on the left side of the graph (and has a negative horizontal location) is Inside against a Right-Handed Batter and Away from a Left-Handed Batter.  Similarly, a pitch that is on the right side of the graph (and thus has a positive Horizontal Location) is Away from a Right-Handed Batter and Inside on a Left-Handed Batter.
Legend:
The Rectangular Box:  An approximation of the strike zone.
Dots that are Darker Red:  Pitches that the opposing batters swung at.
Dots that are Lighter Red:  Pitches that the opposing batters didn't swing at.
Dark Red Xes:  Pitches that were swung at and missed. 

Year Pitch Type Batter Handedness # Thrown Swing Rate Whiff Rate Swinging Strike Rate GB% In-Wide-Zone % Run Value
2010 Four-Seam L 311 (55.24%)
40.51% 19.05% 7.72% 46.81% 71.70% 2.8221
2010 Four-Seam R 1021 (43.34%)
46.52% 15.79% 7.35% 44.39% 71.20% -7.3062

Table 1: The Results of Niese's Four-Seam Fastballs this year against Right and Left Handed Batters.
GB %: % of balls hit into play by batters that result in ground balls.
Whiff Rate: (# of swinging strikes)/(# of pitches swung at by batters)
Swing Rate: (# of pitches swung at by batters)/(total pitches thrown)
Swinging Strike Rate: (# of swinging strikes)/(total pitches thrown) %
In-Wide-Zone: % of pitches in a wide (2 feet wide) strike zone.
Run Value:  The amount of runs saved/given-up above average by the pitch.  (Negative values are good, positive are bad)

Niese's four-seam fastball was his bread and butter this year. The pitch is thrown at an average velocity of 89.7 miles per hour, has an average of 7.7 inches of hop (or rise), and tails in on left-handed batters an average of 3.5 inches. The end result is a pitch with mediocre velocity, which has a little less rise than the average four-seam fastball and which cuts in on right-handed batters (or away from left-handed batters) more than the typical four-seam fastball. The "cutting movement" isn't large at all, but batters expecting the typical left-hander four-seam fastball will find the pitch moving a bit less (3-4 inches) in on left-handed batters and may be thrown off by this.

As you can see from Figures 2 and 3, Niese seems to target the inside part of the plate against right-handed batters and the outside part of the plate against left-handed batters. The pitch is most effective at getting swinging strikes up in the zone or even high, like most four-seam fastballs (there's also a cluster of swinging strikes middle-high, for what it's worth, but I wouldn't recommend throwing pitches there too frequently). 

Looking at the results on this pitch, we can see that the pitch is basically average across the board.  The pitch has a basically average (or slightly above average) swinging strike rate, and has an above average, but not far above average, groundball rate. Niese throws the pitch in the strike zone a very high 71% of the time to both types of batters, which helps keep down his walk rate; whenever he needs to avoid a ball, he can usually rely on this pitch to hit the strike zone. 

Niese uses this pitch the most of any of his other pitches in EVERY single count to right-handed batters and to all but two counts against left-handed batters (Note, once again small sample size). Even on 0-2 counts, Niese uses this pitch the majority of the time.   

Now the question is:  How could this pitch be improved next year?  I have two suggestions:
1)  I would decrease the frequency of this pitch being used on 0-2 and 1-2 counts. The cutter, curveball, and changeup should be Niese's strikeout pitches (more on this in a bit) and are roughly equivalent at getting ground balls as the four-seam fastball. Decreasing the use of the four-seam fastball in these counts in favor of the other pitches should increase his strikeout rate, at the potential cost of getting into more 2-2 counts. Given that Niese can rely on this pitch to get a strike in 2 and 3 ball counts, I don't think that would increase his BB rate too much. 
2)  To the extent that he uses this pitch in 0-2 and 1-2 counts, I would increase the frequency of aiming high in the strike zone so as to get swinging strikes. Niese already seems to especially aim high with this pitch in those situations, which may mean he's already TRYING to do this and that he's simply not able to consistently yet keep the fastball high enough to get swings and misses (I can't tell intent, I can only tell the results).  NOTE:  Niese does need to throw some pitches (including four-seam fastballs probably) that aren't aimed high on these counts so as to keep batters at least somewhat honest, but this shouldn't be a problem.


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Niese's Cutter: 

Niese_cutter_locations_mediumFigures 4 and 5: The Location of Jon Niese's Cutter this year in the strike zone against Right and Left Handed Batters.  The graph is from a catcher's point of view: So a pitch that is on the left side of the graph (and has a negative horizontal location) is inside against a right-handed batter and away from a left-handed batter. Similarly, a pitch that is on the right side of the graph (and thus has a positive Horizontal Location) is away from a right-handed batter and inside on a left-handed batter.
Legend:
The Rectangular Box:  An approximation of the strike zone.
Dots that are Darker Green:  Pitches that the opposing batters swung at.
Dots that are Lighter Green:  Pitches that the opposing batters didn't swing at.
Dark Green Xes:  Pitches that were swung at and missed. 

Year Pitch Type Batter Handedness # Thrown Swing Rate Whiff Rate Swinging Strike Rate GB% In-Wide-Zone % Run Value
2010 Cutter L 155 (27.5%)
45.16% 15.71% 7.10% 50.00% 68.39% -3.2577
2010 Cutter R 567 (24.1%)
56.44% 23.75% 13.40% 43.10% 67.72% -7.4427

Table 2: The Results of Niese's Cutters this year against Right and Left Handed Batters.
GB %: % of balls hit into play by batters that result in ground balls.
Whiff Rate: (# of swinging strikes)/(# of pitches swung at by batters)
Swing Rate: (# of pitches swung at by batters)/(total pitches thrown)
Swinging Strike Rate: (# of swinging strikes)/(total pitches thrown) %
In-Wide-Zone: % of pitches in a wide (2 feet wide) strike zone.
Run Value:  The amount of runs saved/given-up above average by the pitch.  (Negative values are good, positive are bad)

A little back-story here. In 2008, Niese came up to the majors with 3 pitches: A four-seam fastball, a changeup, and a curveball.  Niese's curveball was considered at the time to be his best pitch and his ticket to the big leagues. In May of 2009, Niese returned to the Majors and showed that he had learned a two-seam fastball. Word had spread at this time of Niese having learned and used a cut-fastball in the minor leagues, but it was not present in Niese's two starts in May. Then in July, Niese threw his third start of the year (after having been sent back down for a month). In this start, Niese finally showed the cut-fastball. It was a pretty good sign that he now had a better fastball-type pitch to go along with his curveball (talk had been at the time that Niese's fastball seemed too straight), but no one thought that the pitch would end up becoming anything more than a compliment to his curveball as his primary out pitch.  

This, as it turned out, was very incorrect. The cut-fastball has emerged as Niese's most-used secondary pitch in 2010, to pretty damn good results. Of course, this is not the same cutter as Niese showed even last year. The cutter this year has only 2 inches of hop (vertical rise) and moves 1.35 inches in on right-handed batters. What this means is that the cutter breaks the opposite direction as a normal left-handed batter's fastball and sinks like a sinker, unlike his four-seam fastball (which has over 5 inches more rise than the cutter). The drawback is that Niese's cutter has an average velocity of only 85.4 MPH, roughly 4 MPH slower than the four-seam fastball (and 3 MPH slower than his two-seam fastball).  Last Year, Niese's cutter was 2 MPH faster, but didn't sink nearly as much as it does this year. 

In essence, last year, Niese was clearly throwing a CUTTER. This year, Niese is throwing what is essentially an 85 miles per hour SLIDER. That might seem pretty impressive, and it should be. (By the way, I'm still referring to it as a cutter, since Niese refers to it as such).

Niese aims this pitch low and in on right-handed batters and away and low against left-handed batters. This complements the pitch's natural movement, resulting in the pitch coming in at the plate on a diagonal instead of straight like a normal fastball, moving further in on right-handed batters as the pitch gets closer to the plate. 

The end result is seen in Table 2 above and they are very impressive. Against right-handed batters, the pitch has a very impressive whiff rate of 23.75%, resulting in a slider-like swinging strike rate of 13.4% (for comparison, the swinging strike rate of a normal average fastball is usually around 6%). Even against right-handed batters, the pitch gets a decent GB Rate of 43.1% when it's put into play. Against left-handed batters, the pitch's best attribute is it's ground ball rate of above 50% (Cutters in general seem to have prominent splits in GB Rate, and Niese is no exception). Meanwhile, Niese's accuracy with the pitch is pretty good too, being at roughly 68% against both left and right handed batters.

It's this accuracy I suspect that drives when Niese uses his cutter. Here's Niese's cutter usage by count against right-handed batters:

0-0 0-1 0-2 1-0 1-1 1-2 2-0 2-1 2-2 3-0 3-1 3-2
18.48% 20.77% 13.38% 29.41%
26.00% 24.54%
28.42% 33.33% 31.67% 0.00% 29.82% 36.05%

Table 3:  The Frequency of the Usage of Niese's Cutter against Right-Handed Batters by the Count. 

Notice something? Niese's cutter use increases greatly as he throws more balls. In the extremely deadly 0-2 counts, Niese doesn't throw the cutter all that frequently, despite it being a pretty good strikeout pitch. When he has thrown cutters on 0-2 counts (17 times) against right-handed batters, the results are very favorable (6 swinging strikes on 11 swings). Despite this, the pitch isn't used all that frequently on 0 ball counts.  

I suspect the reason for this is that Niese considers the cutter his best strikeout pitch that he can also rely upon not having called for a ball (see the accuracy above). Thus on 1 and (especially on) 0 ball counts, Niese will go to his curveball or attempt to throw his four-seam fastball high in order to try and get swinging strikes, instead of using this weapon.  

It's this usage of the cutter that leads me to how I think Niese can improve "this pitch" next year. I believe that Niese should, on 0 ball counts, increase his cutter use at the expense of his four-seam fastball, PARTICULARLY in 0-2 counts. Niese happens to use the four-seam fastball over 50% of the time in 0-2 counts to right-handed batters and to be fair is very effective with it  (18.75% swinging strike rate). He gets a swinging strike (and thus a strike out) 22% of the time against these batters on 0-2 counts. That said, substituting a few more cutters for a few of the high four-seam fastballs should result in that rate increasing, thus increasing his strikeout rate. Meanwhile, Niese's walk rate is unlikely to be affected by such a change due to Niese's accuracy with this pitch and the fact that these are 0 ball counts anyhow. The end result may be a decrease in the amount of ground balls Niese gets on these counts, but even that should a minor decrease.  

 

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In Part 1, I've talked about Jon Niese's four-seam fastball and his cut-fastball. My suggestions for how he should change his use of these pitches are fairly minor; Niese does a great job with his cutter and a decent enough job with his four-seam fastball already. However, Niese's other 3 pitches are more problematic for various reasons and could stand to improve much more than these two. So in Part 2, in a few days, I'll address each of those pitches and the future of Niese next year and beyond as a New York Met.

This FanPost was contributed by a member of the community and was not subject to any vetting or approval process. It does not necessarily reflect the opinions, reasoning skills, or attention to grammar and usage rules held by the editors of this site.

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