PITTSBURGH – There were a lot of things the Pirates liked about Jon Niese when they added him over the off-season in a trade with the Mets. He fit a lot of the trends the Pirates usually target, with a lot of ground balls, a decent amount of strikeouts, and the fact that being left-handed in PNC Park doesn’t hurt.

“We’ve always liked the ability to put the ball on the ground, a strike thrower, the ability to change speeds, the ability to induce weak contact,” Neal Huntington said of Niese. “The ground ball rate spiked last year. We think he’s a very good fit for our ballpark, in front of our defense, and as a part of our rotation.”

One thing Huntington mentioned all throughout Spring Training was that Niese had a bad second half last year, after looking good from 2011-2014, and during the first half of the 2015 season. Niese combined for a 3.70 ERA and a 3.60 xFIP over 678.1 innings from 2011-2014. His numbers during the first three months of the 2015 season were a bit below that, with a 3.90 ERA and a 4.05 xFIP. But the second half saw a decline, with Niese dropping to a 4.36 ERA and a 4.18 xFIP.

So what happened with Niese in the second half?

“Darin Ruf,” Niese joked. “I think if it wasn’t for him, I probably would have had a low-3 ERA. But just made some mistakes to him, and I think he hit three, three run homers off me in a matter of two weeks.”

It wasn’t quite that bad. It was actually two home runs in the span of a week, and only one was a three run homer. But in all seriousness, Niese noted that this was a representation of a bigger problem he had in the second half.

“It just seemed like last year in the second half, I would pitch well, and then all of a sudden give up a home run that would ruin my outing. Hopefully that will change this year.”

Niese gave up ten homers in 86.2 innings in the second half last year, despite his ground ball rate reaching career high levels at 55.6%. His home run to fly ball ratio was 14.3%, which is well above his 10.4% rate from 2011-14. But he also had the same issues in the first half, with the same 14.3% HR/FB ratio.

The home runs remained in Spring Training this year, with three of them in 15 innings of work. The problem carried over to his first start of the year with the Pirates. He posted an impressive 7:1 K/BB ratio in five innings. He had a 46% ground ball rate. And yet he gave up a two run homer to Jedd Gyorko, which combined with some poor defense on the night, led to five runs, four earned, in his five innings of work.

After the game, Clint Hurdle mentioned that Niese and Francisco Cervelli were still getting adjusted, especially with their pitch scheming. Niese noted that he and Cervelli would have another meeting before his next start against the Tigers, going over the game plan and how they’ll attack hitters.

“It’s a guy that I’ve got a lot of confidence in sending him out there, just because of the back of the ball card and what he’s been able to do,” Hurdle said. “I love him in the ball park pitching, and I think as time goes on, and the relationship develops between him and Cervelli, it will get better.”

But there might be something else to watch going forward with Niese. Looking at his 2015 results, 13 of his 20 home runs came on the two-seam fastball and the curveball. And in his first start with the Pirates, Niese saw his usage of the two-seam and curve go down from last year, while his four seam and cutter went up. The home run to Gyorko once again came on a two-seam fastball. The cutter didn’t fare well, although Niese had problems gripping the pitch in the cold weather.

One start doesn’t establish a trend. However, it will be interesting to watch whether Niese continues pitching off the four seamer and the cutter this year. The curve has been a good pitch for him in the past, but struggled with an .806 OPS against last year. The cutter had a .730 OPS, which is in line with his career .725 mark for the pitch. And the two-seamer has been the worst pitch of his career, with an .822 OPS against. Meanwhile, the four seamer has a .749 OPS against, and was at .748 last year.

The “working with Cervelli” line doesn’t initially sound like it will solve the problem, as you’d expect a pitcher to be adjusted to a catcher by this point. However, if Niese is changing his pitch selection, then it would make sense that he’s still working on scheming of those pitches, since this would be a new approach for him.

So far, the Pirates aren’t saying that this is the case. Ray Searage discussed a few basic mechanical adjustments, like making sure Niese was staying on his back leg a bit longer. Everyone has discussed the advantage Niese will have by playing in PNC Park as a left-handed ground ball pitcher with this defense behind him — especially with the shifts, as the Mets didn’t do that often.

We’ll have to see if the pitch selection trend holds up in his next start, and whether that new approach can cut down on the homers that plagued his 2015 season. If that isn’t the case, then there would be concern about how the Pirates are going to solve the home run problem, especially with the issue carrying over to the early part of the 2016 season.

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26 COMMENTS

  1. I had to read this again after he just gave up 2 home runs. I hope they can solve this. other than the bombs he gave up I can’t complain.

  2. I like that Niese is a lefty but he doesn’t seem like much of an upgrade over Charlie Morton. I thought we could have gotten more for walker. Maybe Uncle Ray will do his magic with him.

  3. Off topic, but wondering what Pirates Prospects subscribers think of Dodgers yanking their SP from a no-hitter in 8th inning of his 1st ML start last night?

    If I was that kid, I’d have come to blows with Manager before giving that ball to him just because I happened to walk a hitter on my 100th pitch.

    All I have to say is, whatever happened to the pursuit of happiness? I’d rather spend the rest of my life talking about the time I threw caution to the wind and dared to be great than justifying the logic of reducing the chance of injury by leaving a no-hitter in my 1st ever ML start.

    • Isn’t he coming off an injury?

      In a first start of a season, at 100 pitches, I get it.

      In June, when he is completely built up… let em at it

    • I think in this particular circumstance it was an extremely difficult call. He had come off TJ surgery and, as you indicated, was only making his first career MLB start. Couple that with decreased velocity–obviously because he was in the 8th inning and at 100 pitches already–and diminishing stuff when he was pulled I think it makes sense not to risk further injury to the guy. BUT at the same time he only needed, what, 4 more outs? Really tough call…I think I would have probably done what is taboo and gone and talked to him first and asked him how he felt and weighed that heavily…really tough call.

  4. Analyzing home run rates is a bit of fool’s errand, but you did uncover some interesting information, and I think this is key;However, it will be interesting to watch whether Niese continues pitching off the four-seamer and the cutter this year

    Niese’s velocity was down a couple ticks last year. With fastball velocity increases, the number of home runs and fly balls/home runs allowed drops. And his sinker is more home run prone, which he was using more last season. His sinker is his worst fastball option, not only do hitters have the best results when making contact it gets the fewest whiffs.

    It was encouraging that in his first start it was four-seamer and curve away to lefties, and cutter in to RHH.

  5. So much for the Pirates not striking out a lot…my god, Iglesias has not hit the zone once all day and still is striking out 1 per inning. ALSO have to give the obligatory: the umpires are awful some days with the strike zone. Somehow Caminero throws a ball right down the middle and yet its a ball and Iglesias puts one two feet off the ground 6 inches off the plate and its a called strike.

  6. Couple points, unrelated to Niese…Cole has been pretty off today. While he’s given us a chance to win, he has not been good. Second, I am not really happy with what I have seen from Harrison so far–at least at the plate. Three straight sliders with two that he had no chance at and a 3 pitch K?!

  7. Randomness rules the world. Many an excellent articles have been written about the power of Randomness. Scientific American October 2008 has an excellent two part review. Randomness is why I have lost half my portfolio value in 24 months. Don’t you love the breadth of comments on this site.

  8. Jon Niese doesn’t have a HR problem. 2015 Jon Niese had somewhat of a HR problem.

    Considering few metrics fluctuate more than HR/FB rate from year-to-year, it’s not accurate to say he had a HR problem. Even if he gives up ~14% HR/FB rate in 2016, he doesn’t have a HR problem.

    It’s noise, it’s random, it’s not predictive.

      • If you’re against the theory of randomness in baseball, you’ll be on the wrong side of the argument every time.

        Especially HR/FB rate, especially over one year of data. There’s a reason why xFIP was created; this article could be used as Exhibit A.

        • It’s very possible that this is just bad luck and he’ll just stop giving up home runs.

          It’s also possible that there’s an underlying reason as to why he’s suddenly giving up a lot more home runs, as you can’t just chalk these up to luck and randomness all the time.

          My job is to dig into this and figure out which one of the above is the case. Not to just say he’ll magically get better, with no explanation for it.

          • Tim: The Pirates do not shy away from guys who give up HR’s. Niese gave up 20 in 177 IP in 2015, while Happ gave up 13 in only 109 IP with Seattle in 2015. A few other guys are Edinson Volquez who gave up 14 in 142 IP with SD the year before the Pirates signed him, and the KING is AJ Burnett who gave up 31 in 190 IP the year before the Pirates signed him.

            All seemed to do better with the Pirates, so let’s be patient.

            • Those guys didn’t just come to the Pirates and magically get better. They all made some changes to their approaches and pitches, which led to fewer home runs, along with other changes to their game.

              That’s what I’m suggesting might be happening here.

        • Not questioning the validity of the content yet the timing. Not sure I expected this story today.

          • Overall, I am not a big fan of Bleacher Report. This site and Bleacher Report have had “writers wanted” signs up, and I have been unsuccessful getting a writing position here. My point is that I have not even bothered applying at Bleacher Report. It might be great for some, but I really like this site!

    • I’ve been at enough blackjack tables to know it’s not so much randomness as it is streakiness. Most everything in life is seasonal, including Pitchers giving up gopher balls.

  9. To bad he is prone to giving up the long ball. Perhaps he can readjust his pitch sequencing and return to his prior form. I did not like the trade but the team needed another starter and he was the best they could do, I guess.

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