Stop looking at R.A. Dickey for a moment. No, really. I know it’s easy to get distracted by the best pitcher on the Mets staff, and arguably in the National League, since the world is hypnotized by his knuckleball, but it’s important to take a moment to notice Jon Niese, because soon, he could be gone.
The 25-year-old left-hander, who made his debut in 2008, isn’t dying, so don’t panic or send flowers, but his steady improvement means that he might not be a Met for much longer. This season, Niese has cemented his place as the number-two starter in place of Johan Santana, who has continued to deal with performance and injury issues. Though Niese signed a five-year, $25.5 million dollar extension in April, the Mets should consider dealing him, especially if it means getting a big bat in return.
Niese’s success this season can be attributed to confidence, health, and perhaps most of all, refining his pitch arsenal. The southpaw has pitched 183.1 innings this year, 26 more than last season, and is having the best season of his career. His ERA is currently 3.49, considerably lower than last year’s 4.40. The biggest change comes from lowering both his hits-per-nine and walks-per-nine, dropping his WHIP from 1.41 to 1.18 over the course of the season. Though his best month this season was June, during which he posted a 1.89 ERA in five starts and averaged 9.2 strikeouts per nine, he has found consistency down the stretch, making quality starts in eight of nine games from August 1 to present. He’s scheduled to make two more starts before the end of the season, against the Pittsburgh Pirates and Miami Marlins.
Niese’s improvement is due mostly to the refinement of his pitch arsenal and accepting that some of his pitches are much better than others. None of Niese’s pitches are about velocity—his average fastball this season has been 91 mph—they’re about command. Last season, Niese’s numbers rose as he struggled to find command with two pitches, his sinker and changeup. Though he has five pitches, Mets pitching coach Dan Warthen worked with him last year to try and improve those two, which meant throwing them more often in game situations. The outcome of using pitches he couldn’t control was a lot of contact and an inflated ERA.
This season, Niese has been allowed to be himself, using the three pitches he’s most comfortable using most—his fastball, curveball, and cutter.
Niese is using his fastball 37 percent of the time, the same frequency as last season. As the table above details, he is using his sinker and changeup less than last season, and his cutter 11 percent more often. The shift to using more cutters has been the difference-maker for Niese, throwing 44.7 percent of them for strikes, 63.8 percent if you include balls in play. While he’s using his curveball less this season, he’s had success with it as well, using it 30 percent of the time as an out pitch in two-strike counts.
Success for Niese could now be a curse if he had visions of being a Met for a long time. Sure, it’s unusual to advocate moving a young pitcher after one solid season, especially when he just signed a five-year deal, but he’s at the peak of his value. Given that the free agent market for starting pitchers is shallow this offseason, the Mets could see huge return for Niese as his contract is reasonable, he’s improving his pitches, and he’s healthy.
The $25.5 million dollar question becomes whether or not the Mets have enough depth in their rotation next season, and the answer to that is maybe. Rookie pitcher Matt Harvey has been successful this season, and prospect Zack Wheeler is awaiting a promotion. While it’s risky to place too much faith in inexperienced pitchers like Harvey and Wheeler (not to mention the risk of having faith in some of the Mets’ experienced pitchers), the reward of desperately needed offense is too alluring to ignore.
It’s obvious the Mets won’t enter the offseason aggressively spending on free agents, and the new CBA makes drafting your way to success much more difficult. Coupled with the secret (okay, it’s not really a secret) that pitcher performance is inherently unstable, especially at lower velocities, Sandy Alderson should offer to help Niese pack up his locker if it means future success for the Mets in return.