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Another Pitchf/x Look At Jon Niese: How Can He Improve His Pitches Next Year? Part 2: The Two-Seamer, The Change-Up, and the Curve

 

Ny_a_niese_b1_300_medium
Jon Niese throwing a curve ball with tight form.  Okay, not really.  (Photo taken from an ESPN NY story)

 

In Part 1 of this article, I talked about how Niese can change his usage of his four-seam fastball and his cutter to improve his results as an overall pitcher.  Those two pitches were the two most frequently used by Jon Niese this year.  They also were his most successful pitches all year; a fact which probably was somewhat of a cause of his large usage of the two pitches. 

But Niese has 3 other pitches (a two-seam fastball, a change-up, and a curveball), which he uses less frequently.  The change-up is only used against Right-Handed Batters, and even then only extremely infrequently.  The Two-seam fastball was used more often, though it's use decreased as the year went on.  And then there's the curve-ball, which was billed earlier in Niese's career as his best pitch.  After the jump we'll take a look at each of these pitches to try and understand what went wrong with them this year and how Niese can improve.

The Two-Seam Fastball

Niese_two-seam_locations_medium

Figures 6 and 7: The Location of Jon Niese's Two-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 Orange:  Pitches that the opposing batters swung at.
Dots that are Lighter Orange:  Pitches that the opposing batters didn't swing at.
Dark Orange 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 2-Seam L 48 (8.5%)
37.5% 16.67% 6.25% 83.33%* 35.42% +1.465
2010 2-Seam R 283 (12.1%)
34.28% 5.15% 1.77% 56.14% 62.54% +6.691

Table 4: The Results of Niese's Two-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)
NOTE:  Numbers marked with an asterick (*) are due to a very tiny sample size and ought to be ignored.

Jon Niese's two-seam fastball does not have bad movement or velocity.  The pitch is thrown at an average velocity of 88.9 miles per hour (a tiny bit slower than the 4-seam fastball), has an average of 4.12 inches of hop (or rise), and tails in on left-handed batters an average of 8.84 inches.  What this means is that the pitch is essentially a sinker in how it moves vertically, dropping more than the average four-seam fastball (it "sinks" over 3.5 inches more than Niese's 4-seam fastball).  Horizontally, the pitch moves around 5 inches more in on left handed batters than Niese's four-seam fastball.  Of course, if you compare the two-seamer to the average four-seam fastball, the pitch moves horizontally JUST LIKE a four-seam fastball (more on this in a bit) but with clear sink. 

Niese aims this pitch away from Right Handed Batters and in on Left-Handed Batters, as seen in Figures 6 and 7.  The pitch tends to be located middle-high, despite the pitch's sink.  In essence, the pitch's locations seem to be basically what we'd expect if Niese was aiming the pitch the same way he aimed his four-seam fastball, with the different movement of the pitch resulting in the pitch not being as high or inside on right-handed batters.  This is probably not optimal as the results of the pitch show.

In fact these results are poor at best.  Against Left-Hand Batters, the pitch is at least average (though it misses a lot).  But Against Right-Hand Batters, the pitch has been pretty bad.  The Run Value of the pitch against Right-Handed batters may be misleading...Niese has had a lot of bad luck on the pitch when it's put in play.  That said, none of the other results are very favorable.  His Swinging Strike rate is an abysmal 1.77% because they miss only 5.15% of the time when they do swing at the pitch.  Meanwhile the accuracy rate of 62.4% isn't particularly great for a four-seam fastball.  The only good thing is  that the pitch gets a decent ground ball rate.

You'll also note that batters don't appear to swing at the pitch unless it's within the strike zone.  I'm speculating here, but I'd guess this is because of two things:  One: the pitch horizontally moves like a normal four-seam fastball, so batters are used to the movement and swing at the same looking pitches as they do on Niese's four-seam fastball (which instead go inside due to its cutting movement).  Two: the pitch is only thrown on early counts (0-0, 1-0, 0-1, 1-1 counts majorly) and never on 0-2 counts.  As such, these are counts where generally batters are more selective and thus can afford to take the more close out of zone pitches for balls. 

 

So, How Could Niese Fix/Improve This Pitch Next Year:
1.  One option could simply be scrapping the pitch entirely
.  Niese has a normal fastball and a cutter, and if he can't improve on this pitch, it's hard to understand why he'd bother to throw it (at least get the whiff rate up so that the pitch has a swinging strike rate of at least 5%).  And in fact, it seems Niese may have had this idea as well, as his use of his two-seam fastball declined greatly in the last 2 months of the season.  Despite this, I'm not really in love with this idea for several reasons: 


First, Idealistically, the Mets having their own cutter-sinker pitcher (like Cliff Lee or Roy Halladay) who could use both pitches to hit either corner is very appealing. 
Second, the two-seam fastballs does have a good ground ball rate and if the rest is improved, increased use of this pitch (at the cost of his four-seamer) should result in Niese improving his GB Rate, thus improving him as a pitcher. 

2.  The other option would be for Niese to hit better locations with the two-seam fastball. Niese currently throws it away to righties, but he isn't hitting the very outside, but rather the middle-away part of the plate.   Moreover, Niese's two-seam fastballs aren't particularly low in the strike zone like you'd expect from a sinker.  The pitch has the sinking motion required to get ground balls, but Niese is too often throwing high enough to get in trouble.  If next year Niese could locate this pitch in the outside and low corner more consistently, the pitch should improve. That said, this will take a lot of work. 

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Niese's Change-Up

Niese_change-up_locations_medium
Figure 8: The Location of Jon Niese's Change-ups this year in the strike zone against Right 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 Yellow:  Pitches that the opposing batters swung at.
Dots that are Lighter Yellow:  Pitches that the opposing batters didn't swing at.
Dark Yellow 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 Change-Up R 110 (4.67%)
41.82% 13.04% 5.45% 36% 53.64% +2.77

Table 5: The Results of Niese's Change-Ups this year against Right-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)
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Niese's change-up was his least used pitch this year (as well as last year) and would seem to be the pitch he's least comfortable with.  He only throws the pitch against right-handed batters (I'm not exaggerating - he threw ZERO against left-handed batters) and even then only rarely.  Moreover, after April, he decreased the usage of the pitch a good bit and then he decreased his use of the pitch further in the final two months of the season.  Whereas Niese has a clear handle on his four-seam fastball and cutter, and is at least comfortable somewhat with his curveball, he's clearly uncomfortable with this pitch.  And that's a shame really; the Change-Up is the best pitch in the game at getting swinging strikes (as can be seen from the success of Johan Santana) and as a Lefty who faces 80% RHBs, Niese has plenty of opportunities to use this pitch.

So how does the pitch move?  Well the pitch moves basically like his two-seam fastball, except at 81 Miles Per Hour instead of 89 MPH.  The pitch moves 9.3 inches away from right-handed batters (compared to 8.8 inches for the two-seam fastball) and has only 3.27 inches of hop (about .8 inches less than the two-seam fastball).  In other words, the pitch moves more away from right-handed hitters than his two-seam fastball by a marginal amount and has better sink as well.  Thus the pitch has at least decent movement and should be perfect for hitting the low and outside corner area that change-up artists favor.

Except, as you can see in Figure 8, Niese's change-ups wound up hitting other locations for the most part instead of this idealized area.  There's a cluster of change-ups that were away but medium high to high and another cluster that appears to be medium low to low and inside.  The former cluster is most certainly not an ideal location for a change-up and while the latter is better, it's not really in the area that most change-up artists find to be successful.  For example, see Figure 9 below:

Niese_change-up_locations_-_lee_and_taka_circles_medium
Figure 9: The Same Strike Zone Location Map as Figure 8 with two circles drawn on it crudely by me representing locations one can hit in the strike zone with a change-up to be effective.  The Blue circle is a crude exaggerated drawing of where Cliff Lee's change-ups are located while the green circle is a crude exaggerated drawing of where Hisanori Takahashi's Change-ups wind up in the strike zone.   

Now, as you can see, a very small percent of Niese's change-ups actually fall into either of these two areas.  Now of course, it's not right to expect Niese to be able to duplicate the insane control of Cliff Lee.  Niese probably shouldn't be expected to duplicate the success of a change-up artist like Takahashi either.  Yet, there's no reason why most of Niese's change-ups can't be aimed so as to hit in the general area (low and away) that Takahashi manages to hit (for an exact representation of Takahashi's change-ups, see HERE).  If he was able to do that, the pitch might get some decent results and be another weapon in Niese's arsenal for getting strike outs. 

Looking at the results for the pitch, you can see that's not the case currently.  The pitch has a whiff rate of only 13.04%, which leads to a swinging strike rate of 5.45%....which is what you'd expect from a fastball rather than an offspeed pitch.  For comparison's purposes, Harry Pavlidis found that the actual average whiff rate for change-ups/split-finger-fastballs is 31.2%, almost triple Niese's rate.  The pitch also is very poor at getting ground balls, though this is probably because of the fact that Niese has tended to locate these pitches middle-high way too often. 

Perhaps because Niese knows this pitch hasn't been that effective, Niese uses it like his two-seam fastball: only in early counts and almost never in two-strike counts. 

So, How Could Niese Fix/Improve This Pitch Next Year:
1.  One option (Once Again) could simply be scrapping the pitch entirely
. Does a pitcher really need a change-up when they have a cutter and curve ball as potential strike out pitches against opposite-handed batters?  I'm not really sure the answer is yes (Despite the idea that pitchers should have a change-up) and thus this may be an option in the long term.  Still, Niese is still young and I think it's probably worthwhile for him to try to work on the change-up in the offseason and spring-training to see if he can become more comfortable with the pitch before giving up on it entirely.

2.  A Second Option would involve Niese working hard on the pitch to improve his aim so he could hit that outside-and-low corner.  It's important to note that I'm not simply repeating myself here; Niese's two-seam fastball seems to be aimed in a certain location and he can improve the pitch by changing that aim.  Niese's change-up on the other hand, for whatever reason, seems to be a bit more all over the place in terms of where the pitch is located.  In order for Niese to be able to use the pitch effectively, he first has to improve his aim so that he can hit a rough spot  more consistently.  THEN he'd be able to try and use this new aim to hit the outside-and-low corner that other change-up artists, such as Takahashi, thrive on. 

Improving Niese's Change-Up will not be easy, but it can be worth it.  Still, Niese's most likely avenue to improving his performance lies with his Curveball:

Niese's Curveball:

His signature pitch is his big overhand curveball, which could be better than any off-speed pitch thrown by any other Mets starter not named "Johan."

-Toby Hyde, metsminorleagueblog.com, April 1, 2010. 

As the above quote shows, there was a lot of hope for Jon Niese's curve ball coming into this season.  This was the pitch that had gotten him up to AAA in the first place and had allowed him to succeed despite not having a great fastball or much velocity (this was before he developed the cutter). So understandably, there were big hopes for the pitch. 

The Curveball moves in on Right-Handed Batters roughly 6 inches, while it drops roughly 9 inches more than it would if the only force acting upon it was gravity.  The pitch's average velocity is 74.33 miles per hour, which is decent enough.  The pitch has frequently been described as a 12-to-6 curve ball in the vein of Barry Zito.  Zito's pitch has about an inch and a half less horizontal movement(and more vertical drop) than Niese's pitch.  So I think I would classify Niese's curve ball as a borderline 12-to-6 curveball or maybe even an 11-to-5 curveball (The "types" of curveball I am talking about are described better HERE).

Incidentally, there has been a lot of discussion over the last year of Niese's curveball being released from a higher angle than his other pitches.  I have a few points about that.  First, this different release point is a little bit (1.5 inches) smaller than it looks under the normal pitchfx plots, due to how release points are recorded.  Second, in another study, I looked at whether having a different release point from your curveball makes a difference as to the pitch's effectiveness.  My conclusion was: No, there's no clear effect at all.  This is not to say that the release point difference might not have an effect on the pitch's results: there has been research which shows that a higher release point, in combination with aiming not too low results in the "hump" of the curveball, the different in the vertical flight paths between the fastball and the curve ball, being larger which may produce a negative effect.  But I'm putting aside the release point discussion for now*.

*One last thing:  Niese threw a few sidearm curve balls this year, especially in the first few starts after his injury.  However, after a game in which he missed with all 4 of these sidearm pitches, Niese stopped using the pitch, and he did not throw a single sidearm pitch in the last 2 months of the season. 

So where does Niese throw the curveball, and what are the results?  See Below:

Niese_curve_locations_medium

Figures 10 and 11: The Location of Jon Niese's curveballs 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 Purple:  Pitches that the opposing batters swung at.
Dots that are Lighter Purple:  Pitches that the opposing batters didn't swing at.
Dark Purple 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 Curve L 49 (8.7%)
38.78% 15.79% 6.12% 42.9%* 59.18% +1.252
2010 Curve R 375 (15.87%)
41.87% 28.03%
11.73%
56.82% 58.67% -.3131

Table 6: The Results of Niese's Two-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)
NOTE:  Numbers marked with an asterick (*) are due to a very tiny sample size and ought to be ignored.


As you can see from the table, the curveball is not really used too frequently against Left-Handed Batters.  And after Niese reaches a 1 ball count against Left-hand batters, the pitch basically disappears completely (with the small exception of on a 1-2 count).  And there's a good reason for this: the pitch's results (in the admittedly small sample size) were terrible against these batters.  Against LHBs, the pitch had a swinging strike rate (6.12%) that was basically equivalent to the average swinging strike rate of a four-seam fastball and nowhere near the accuracy.  I suspect this is why the pitch plays a minor role against these batters.

Against Right-Handed Batters, Niese's results look better, but still not great.  The pitch has a ground ball rate of 56%, which is fairly good (and the best of his pitches) but not especially great (Brett Myers and Gio Gonzalez have curveballs with GB rates over 70%).  He has a swinging strike rate of 11.73% on the pitch, which is clearly better than the swinging strike rate on a fastball, but still isn't any better than average for a curveball. 

So how can Niese Improve the curveball?

First, look at Figure 11 above, which shows where Niese locates his curveball in the strike zone against right-handed batters.  Where Niese's most effective curveballs have been located is particularly obvious on that graph:  down and in.  In this area, Niese manages to get most of his swinging strikes (his swinging strike on 108 curveballs that wound up ideally   And yet a good deal (almost half!) of Niese's curveballs are located middle to away from these batters.  Moreover, those curve balls tend to be medium high to high in the strike zone.  If Niese truly wishes to succeed on this pitch, he needs to improve his control and avoid those away/high curveballs.   

Second, Niese's swinging strike numbers are deflated by how he uses the pitch.  If you remember from the first part of this article, Niese's use of the cutter, especially as an out-pitch, increased as the amount of balls in the count increased.  What decreases as the count gets worse for the pitcher is his curveball use.  On 0-2, the curveball is the 2nd-most used pitch (behind the four-seamer) and on 1-2, the pitch is basically tied for use with the cutter.  On 2-2 it becomes the 3rd most frequently used pitch, only for it to basically disappear completely on 3-2.  So on the counts where batters are most likely to swing, the Cutter is used more frequently (especially on 3-2 counts) than the Curve.  Thus while the whiff rate on the pitch is higher than that of the cutter, the swing rate is down because of how he uses the pitch. 

It's my opinion Niese might wish to increase the frequency of his curveball use on these counts.  On 3-2 counts, while he might walk a few more guys by throwing the curveball more often, I'm pretty sure that this would increase the amount of strikeouts (by increasing the amount of swinging strikes on 3-2 counts).  Still, that's a situation where some balance needs to be established.  More importantly, Niese would benefit (once again) from using the curveball more often on 1-2 and 0-2 counts.  Yeah a high four-seam fastball can get swinging strikes for the strike out, but the curveball is more likely to do so, and on those counts, an additional ball shouldn't be too damaging. 

 

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Conclusion:  In sum, I think with the following changes, Niese could be an even better pitcher next year:

Four-Seam Fastball:  Decrease the use of this pitch on 0-2 and 1-2 counts in favor of the cutter and curveball.  When he does use this pitch in those counts, the pitch should almost always be high or at the top of the strike zone.

Cutter:  Increase the frequency he uses this pitch on 0 and 1 ball counts, at the expense of the four-seam fastball.  The pitch itself seems pretty damn good and I wouldn't touch his aim on the pitch. 

Two-Seam Fastball:  Niese needs to use the off-season to see if he can gain control over this pitch.  If he can lower in the zone (and further outside), Niese can make this a pretty valuable pitch at getting ground balls.  If he can't do that though, Niese may be better off eliminating this pitch.

Change-Up:  A  change-up is the best pitch in general for getting strikeouts (swinging strikes).  Unfortunately, Niese seems to have little control of this pitch, despite decent movement.  If Niese could gain decent control at hitting an area away and low (not necessarily in the strike zone), Niese would gain a 3rd "out" pitch and would be able to increase his strikeout rate. 

Curveball:  If Niese can more tightly locate his curveball low and inside, it's swinging strike rate should increase to the point where it is the dynamite out pitch that we were hoping for.  Also, like the cutter, he should use this pitch more often. 

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In Sum, Niese has been a successful pitcher for the Mets this year, easily fitting as their #3 or #4 best starter.  There's no reason why he can't duplicate this success in this coming year.  And if he improves his 5 pitches in the ways that I've mentioned (or perhaps in ways that I've missed in this analysis), he can improve further. Let's hope he does so.


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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