As the Pirates look to rebound from a disastrous series against the Cubs with a weekend set in St. Louis, questions abound regarding the performance of the pitching staff so far this season.
In the aggregate, both groups have had difficulty getting outs, with the rotation currently 11th in the NL in FIP (4.52) and the bullpen 12th (4.70).
The Pirates did not significantly invest in starting pitching this off-season, seemingly hoping to acquire reasonably priced interim options until Jameson Taillon and/or Tyler Glasnow could step into full-time roles later this year.
To acquire one of those interim options, the Pirates decided to also address both their rotation and Neil Walker’s contract situation by sending Walker to the Mets in exchange for Jon Niese in December.
Tim broke down the trade at the time, noting that this could work out well for both clubs, assuming the Pirates could sufficiently replace Walker, and that Niese would continue his league-average performance for at least the 2016 season, and perhaps beyond.
It probably goes without saying that the trade has worked out much better for Walker (136 wRC+, 0.6 fWAR) and the Mets to this point. Niese has made a total of six starts, with a 5.94 ERA (5.74 FIP). The amount of hard contact is a concern, but to me one of the most pressing concerns is Niese’s noticeable decline in control, which is particularly of interest for someone with a previous shoulder injury.
His 2016 walk rate (9.1%) is noticeably above his career number (7%) so far, and considering that his declining whiff rate and lower swing rate on pitches outside the zone, it’s clear Niese will need to find ways to be successful while throwing more strikes.
Tim also looked at Niese’s home run problems, and those have continued unabated. After Tuesday’s start, his HR/FB rate is up to 18.4%, well above both the typical league average of 10.5%, and his career rate of 11.4%.
He is giving up more fly balls (34.2%) than his average rate (29%), but the share of hard contact he’s surrendered is in line with his career rate of 30.1%. The ability to get ground balls is still there, with his 49.5% share consistent with his career average of 50%.
He’s essentially traded line drives (16.2% vs. 20.1% career) for fly balls so far this year, and he’s paid a hefty price, particularly in places like Phoenix and Denver (two home runs allowed in each) where home runs are often both majestic and frequent.
It is reasonable to conclude that there is some bad luck at play here, with both xFIP (4.76) and DRA (5.06) agreeing that Niese has been unlucky, but still performing well below average.
We’ve addressed the top-level numbers and looked at his contact profile, so the next step would be to look at his pitch usage and see what might be driving his poor performance.
After moving away from it in 2014-15, Niese has gone back to the four-seam as his primary fastball over his two-seam (sinker), and he has been using his cutter more when ahead in the count, particularly to right-handed batters.
His velocity is generally in line with where it has been the last two years after the shoulder injury, but I think there is reason for slight concern about the quality of his stuff. It’s not uncommon to see pitchers lose movement on their pitches as they get older, and you see this with Niese, primarily when it comes to vertical movement trending downward.
I want to mention his cutter in particular, though, because he’s using it much more this season, and it seems to be an outlier relative to his other fastballs.
Niese probably made a change to his cutter in 2014, coming off the partial tear of his rotator cuff in the previous year. You can see a sizable spike in movement that carries over into 2015. This year, though, the cutter is not moving in the same way, and he’s throwing it a full mile-per-hour slower. His spin rate is down as well, which may contribute to the relative lack of movement.
Since nothing seems to have changed with his release point, this could indicate that Niese is trying a slightly different grip, or looking for a larger separation between his various fastballs. If he were struggling to find his way with the cutter, I doubt he’d be throwing it nearly a quarter of the time, so this might indicate a slight shift in approach.
The cutter has always been the most effective of Niese’s harder pitches for limiting SLG% (.393) and ISO (.124), but it doesn’t generate quite as many ground balls (52%) as his sinker (56%). Trading a few more singles for fewer extra-base hits with more usage of the cutter isn’t necessarily a bad deal.
The vast majority of Niese’s hardest contact this year has come against his four-seam and sinker, so that additional use of his cutter may be showing some positive results. Unfortunately, since he prefers to use it when ahead in the count, that approach relies on being able to throw strikes with his other pitches that don’t end up on the wrong side of the fence.
It stands to reason that Niese’s numbers will regress towards his career norms, particularly as he gets more opportunities to pitch at PNC Park, but throwing better stuff with better execution is going to be the truest sign of progress.
Six starts is obviously not much information to work with, but the walk rate, the home run rate, and the pitch mix are some important issues to keep an eye on with respect to Niese’s performance as the Pirates look to stabilize their pitching staff while they await the reinforcements from Indianapolis.