On the surface, Jon Niese enjoyed another strong season for the Mets in 2014. Third on the club behind only David Wright and Daniel Murphy in tenure, the 27-year-old made 30 starts while compiling a 3.40 ERA before leaving his final start early due to an elevated heart rate. Niese's 2.2 walks per nine innings and 1.27 WHIP were both career-bests, and his 187.2 innings were second on the team to Bartolo Colon. As the sole left-hander in New York's rotation, Niese is firmly entrenched despite the promising cache of arms working their way to Queens.
Despite a spring interrupted by shoulder woes, Niese was New York's most consistent starter through most of the first three months, compiling a 2.96 ERA through his first 17 starts while allowing more than three runs just twice in that span. Included in that run was a four-start stretch which saw the lefty allow just three earned runs across 26.1 innings (1.01 ERA), highlighted by arguably his best game of the season on May 5 in Miami. However, trouble would soon find Niese, partly due to injury, partly due to ineffectiveness, and partly due to a regression to the mean. In addition, questions of maturity and the ability to control his emotions on the mound continued to plague Niese, who often appears noticeably frustrated when things don't go his way. Too often, this has been followed by innings that quickly spiral out of control.
Despite posting an ERA below three through the first half, Niese was outperforming his peripherals by a wide margin. While his ERA was a strong 2.96, both his FIP (3.64) and xFIP (3.79) painted a pitcher that was benefiting from good fortune. His HR/FB% was well below-average at 8.2 percent and a .283 BABIP coupled with stranding more than 77 percent of baserunners certainly added to his good luck. But that would change on the night of July 4 when Niese would be removed from his start after just three batters after being hit with a line drive. Interestingly enough, he would be placed on the disabled list three days later with a shoulder strain.
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Both Niese and manager Terry Collins claimed he was experiencing no discomfort or pain and after missing the requisite 15 days, he returned on July 21 by allowing four runs and 11 hits in six innings against the Mariners. The loss began a poor stretch of pitching that included a 4.97 ERA (4.22 FIP) in nine starts through September 2. Niese's luck at stranding runners (66.4 percent) and keeping the ball in the ballpark (HR/FB% of 14 percent) were the biggest culprits of his fortune turning sour. However, a noticeable drop in velocity also continued to plague Niese, who admitted in early August that he had changed his delivery to compensate for shoulder soreness. His average fastball velocity, which topped out at 90.5 mph in both 2012 and 2013 fell all the way to 88.8 last season according to PITCHf/x, a precipitous decline as the chart shows. In addition, only 25.5 percent of Niese's pitches in 2014 were four-seam fastballs, a drop from 36.5 percent the year before. He tossed his two-seamer a career-high 28.9 percent of the time while maintaining consistency with his curveball and improving his changeup. Along with Dillon Gee and Murphy, Niese is also a source of endless trade speculation, though his recent shoulder troubles and the fact that he's the only left-hander in New York's rotation should keep him in Queens for now. Signed to a team-friendly five-year, $25.5 million deal that includes two option years, Niese will earn only $7 million in 2015, the fourth year of his pact signed prior to 2012.
Desired 2015 role: All-Star left-hander that provides 200 innings and a change of pace to hard throwers Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, and Zack Wheeler.
Expected 2015 role: Solid fourth starter who gives the Mets average to slightly above-average production at a reasonable price tag.