Giles: Examining Jon Niese’s Early-Season Struggles

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.

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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.

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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.

  • also niese has sucked the 3 years .

  • Very good stuff, however I think one aspect that was missed is where Niese is throwing his pitches, the Pirates seem (or at least this is where Niese is throwing, determining intent is a bit unknowable.) to work everything more down and in to right handed hitters.

    Prior to this season Niese worked RHH in with the cutter in, fastball middle-in, and the sinker away. Everything hard this season is more inside and much lower in the zone. This seems to be where the walks are coming from because Niese is missing down and in a lot.

    Four-seamer Zone% is down to 48.9% from career average of 58.3%, Cutter down to 48.5% from 56.2%.

    The other aspect is historically Niese’s best results against RHH came down and away.

    http://www.fangraphs.com/zonegrid.aspx?playerid=4424&position=P&ss=2010&se=2015&type=7&hand=R&count=all&blur=1&grid=10&view=pit

  • Bucs weren’t getting an impact player for Walker. If the Mets weren’t dissatisfied with Murphy’s fielding and cost, I’m dubious Neal would’ve found a market for Walker at all. Not really Walker’s fault, he’s just at the intersection of age and cost that makes him a questionable value going forward. The market was basically Mets and Nats. As we know, Murphy ended up with Nats – and Mets might’ve been better off keeping him despite Walker’s bump in HRs.

    I was in the camp of put Walker at 1b this year, but was concerned Bucs would offer a QO and Walker would take it. Surprised Neal got a controllable MLB piece at all, although it’s certainly debatable whether 2016 Niese is still MLB quality.

  • Good stuff Ed.

  • Great article. Now all we can do is hope he improves and starts winning.

  • If I had to bet, I’m going with Niese being removed from the starting rotation when JT comes up.

    We’ll use Jon as another lefty PH off the bench. 🙂

    Oh, and Jon, don’t count on us picking up your option years.

  • Good article but really provides little reason for hope that niese is returning to his pre-2015 level. NH, you might want to stop trading with the mets.

    • You didn’t like the Byrd trade?

      • Was being facetious and i admit I did like the Byrd trade. Herrera was pretty steep price though.

        • Not really….

          • Not really what? Herrera wasn’t steep price? Look at his katoh projections and how he profiles and get back to me

            • He might actually be starting at 2b for us had we kept him.

              • So could Brock Holt but I’d rather have Melancon and the memory of the 2013 wild card game that we wouldn’t have been in without byrd

            • I have zero issues with Herrera for Byrd. That’s the type of trade competitive teams make all the time. Byrd was essential to getting home field in the WC and winning that game. Hard to find an argument how that deal hurt the Bucs in any way, shape or form.

    • Stabilization in the HR rate should get him under 5.00 FIP, but progress from there is up to him and Ray Searage to figure out.

      • The data on the cutter des not look promising especially considering it is the pitch he really need to rely on.

        • The cutter is producing acceptable results; it’s his four-seam and sinker that are getting blown up so far.

          • Yes. It looks like the velocity on the 4seam and sinker is up slightly per pitch fx. Resukts definitely awful though so far on those pitches.

  • Overall this wiil prove to be a good trade. They all can’t become Cervilli. If you look at the big picture this is a well thought out long term short term move. If he’s injured I take back all of the above.

    • piraterican21
      May 6, 2016 1:54 pm

      I can’t agree with you, not just because the now, but it just didn’t make sense. Walker should had been move to 1b and the team should had gone hard after Happ who,didn’t cost much more than Niese will cost if he’s kept.

      • Agree completely or trade walker and a prospect for a truly impact type acquisition

        • Excellent point, Chris M. That is what I wanted the Bucs to do. Stop the hope and go trades for dubious at best players and make a deal for once to obtain a player(s) of significance and substance.

      • Walker + Happ puts you 10 million over the current budget. You’d have to make corresponding moves to offset that salary, all of which would make the team weaker.

        There’s also the matter of the team not wanting to commit multiple years to Happ, or any other SP for that matter, with Taillon, Glasnow, Kuhl and Kingham all in various stages of readiness to provide league average or better performance at league minimum salary.

        Thats not to say the club made the best decision, given all the options. Niese was always going to be a stretch as a #3 on a World Series contender.

    • I don’t agree. Unless he suddenly gets it all back the second and third year options on Niese look worthless…and that was being touted as the real benefit in the deal.
      We should have two or three prospect candidates for the starting rotation in 2017 in addition to Taillon and Glasnow already entrenched in the rotation. That would make at least 6 arms better than Niese. They just wanted Walker gone at his price, and unfortunately Harrison disappoints so far in the field.

      • Harrison makes errors, but he also gets to a veritable crap ton more than Walker.

        So its disappointing in that fans notice what he does wrong more than they notice what Walker did wrong.

        He’s been fine at turning DPs (one question many had for his move to 2B). The rest is what we thought it would be, less sure handed than Walker but with a good chunk more range.

  • freddylang
    May 6, 2016 1:08 pm

    My answer to the title of this article: “But I don’t wanna!”

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