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.