Sunday, August 19, 2012

Jonathon Niese Finally Gets It Together

Jonathon Niese was drafted by the Mets in the seventh round of the 2005 amateur draft.  Niese was good, but not great in the minors, winning 11 games in each minor league season from 2006 to 2008 and averaging nearly a strikeout per inning.  But his ERA was just under 4.00 and he averaged over three walks per nine innings.  However, he went 5-1 in seven starts with AAA-New Orleans in 2008 and became one of the September call-ups in Shea Stadium's final season.

Niese pitched poorly in his first major league start, allowing five runs on seven hits and four walks to the Brewers in only three innings of work.  But he was brilliant in his next start, pitching eight shutout innings against the Braves to earn his first major league victory.  In his third and final start for the Mets in 2008, Niese could not carry over the momentum gained from his stellar effort against Atlanta. He threw 78 pitches in only three innings versus the Cubs, allowing six runs on seven hits and two walks.  It was this kind of inconsistency from start to start that became the rule rather than the exception for Niese over his first four seasons in the majors.

In 2009, Niese made five starts for the Mets.  He pitched beautifully in his first start (6 IP, 2 ER, 7 H, 0 BB) but was awful in his second (4.2 IP, 5 ER, 7 H, 2 BB).  He followed the same pattern in his next two starts, pitching well in his third start, but allowing base runner after base runner in his fourth game.  Niese's fifth start was marred by a season-ending injury on August 5, when he collapsed on the mound while throwing a practice pitch. 

The 2010 season was the first in which Niese made the Mets' Opening Day roster.  Niese began the season poorly, winning one of his first eight starts before another injury felled him on May 16.  But once he came off the disabled list, Niese was a new man.  He won his first five decisions upon his return to the Mets on June 5 and enjoyed the best extended stretch of his career to date.  From June 5 to August 21, Niese was the proud owner of a 2.70 ERA, striking out 77 batters and walking only 25 in 96.2 IP.  Only twice in those 15 starts did he allow more than three runs.  He also pitched the best game of his career on June 10, allowing only a third inning double to the Padres' Chris Denorfia.  That hit was the only base runner of the night for San Diego, and the only blemish on an otherwise perfect pitching performance by Jonathon Niese, who sailed to a complete-game one-hit shutout.

But even after a two-and-a-half month stretch of excellence, Niese's inconsistencies were not completely behind him.  In his final seven starts of the season, Niese was battered by opposing hitters.  Niese allowed the opposition to hit .345 against him and walked 19 batters in 35.2 IP.  His ERA over that stretch was an abysmal 7.57, and as a result, he was only able to win one of his final seven starts, finishing the year with a disappointing 9-10 record.

The same formula was followed by Niese in 2011, as he started off poorly (2-4, 5.03 ERA in his first eight starts) before recovering in the middle part of the season (8-4, 3.34 ERA, 84 K, 20 BB in 86.1 IP), only to struggle at the end (1-3, 7.15 ERA in four August starts).  Niese was finally shut down for the season after a brutal start on August 23 in which he allowed eight runs on ten hits to the Phillies in four innings of work.  He would not pitch again until 2012, with the Mets not knowing what they were going to get from the inconsistent, oft-injured Niese.

But then Sandy Alderson and the Mets' front office gave Niese an unexpected present during the first week of the season, signing the homegrown lefty to a five-year, $25.5 million contract, with two team options that could pay him an extra $21 million and keep him in Flushing until 2018.  The security has clearly helped Niese, as he has responded with the best season of his career.

Jonathon Niese made the first-place Nats look like a Little League team with his dominating performance last night.

After last night's brilliant performance (7.1 IP, 0 ER, 5 H, 0 BB, 7 K) against the team with the best record in baseball, the Washington Nationals, Niese improved his season record to 10-6 and lowered his ERA to 3.49.  More importantly, he has been able to pitch effectively well into the latter part of the season, something that had eluded him over his major league career.  Since June 3, Niese has gone 7-4 with a 2.89 ERA.  But the best part of this stretch has been his control, as Niese has struck out 78 batters while walking only 13 in his last 14 starts, an average of six strikeouts and less than one walk per start.

Prior to 2012, Niese had never won more than 11 games in a season.  He is now one win away from matching his career high with six weeks remaining.  Niese is also 19 strikeouts from setting a new personal high.  But his ability to control his pitches is what has finally turned him into a quality major league pitcher.  From 2008 to 2011, Niese had never finished a season with a WHIP under 1.40.  This year, it's down to 1.15.  Niese has also improved his strikeout to walk ratio in each season he's been in the majors, going from 1.38 K/BB in 2008 to 2.00 K/BB in 2009, all the way up to this season's 3.39 K/BB ratio.  As a result, Niese has stayed in ballgames longer, giving his team a better chance to win.  Niese has pitched a minimum of six innings in each of last 14 starts, pitching at least seven innings in ten of the 14.

In a season featuring the exploits of R.A. Dickey and the no-hitter by Johan Santana, it has been Jonathon Niese who has been the most consistent starter on the staff.  Even Dickey, who could be on his way to the first 20-win season by a Met since 1990, has been inconsistent of late, going 3-3 with a 4.39 ERA in his last nine games (eight starts).

The face of inconsistency for the Mets over the past few seasons has finally gotten it together.  Although it took him a few years to get there, Jonathon Niese has become the pitcher the Mets expected him to be.  With Niese signed through the 2016 season, it's good to know that the team will have a dependable arm in the rotation for many years to come.

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