Friday, March 22, 2013

Can Jon Niese Succeed Where Mike Pelfrey Didn't?

Jonathon Niese has worked hard to get to where he is now.
(Photo by Ed Leyro/Studious Metsimus)

On Thursday, the Mets announced that Jonathon Niese will be taking the ball on Opening Day, making his first season-opening start for the only team he's known in the major leagues.  Niese will get the start because Johan Santana has not been able to throw off a mound since early March and might begin the season on the disabled list.

Niese had a breakthrough season for the Mets in 2012, going 13-9 with a 3.40 ERA, 1.17 WHIP and 155 strikeouts - all career-bests.  But getting the Opening Day nod means facing lots of aces during the season's first month and perhaps beyond.  If a pitcher isn't up to the task of facing the best moundsmen in the league on a regular basis, then a breakthrough season can quickly be negated by a disappointing year.  Just ask Mike Pelfrey.

Just three years ago, Pelfrey was pitching in his fifth year with the Mets.  After years of showing abbreviated flashes of greatness, Pelfrey took off in 2010.  The right-hander won ten of his first 12 decisions, finishing the year with a 15-9 record and a 3.66 ERA.  With Johan Santana out for the opener in 2011, new manager Terry Collins gave Pelfrey the ball in Game No. 1, hoping he could build upon his success from the previous year.  To say Pelfrey struggled in the role as the team's new "ace" would be a tremendous understatement.

One year after winning a career-high 15 games as the team's No. 4 starter, Pelfrey regressed in 2011, going 7-13 with a 4.74 ERA.  Pelfrey struggled during the entire first half, allowing four runs or more in nine of his first 17 starts.  In many of his starts, Pelfrey faced some of the best pitchers in baseball.  He squared off against Josh Johnson (twice), Cole Hamels, Justin Verlander, Matt Cain and Roy Halladay, to name a few.  He failed to defeat any of them.

In 2012, Jonathon Niese was the team's No. 3 starter after Johan Santana and R.A. Dickey.  As a result, he got to face the likes of Vance Worley (twice), Mike Minor, Jake Westbrook, Jacob Turner and Mike Fiers.  Niese defeated all of them.

This year, Niese won't have as many fortunate matchups pitching out of the No. 1 slot in the rotation.  He'll be going up against All-Stars and Cy Young candidates just as Mike Pelfrey did in 2011.  If Niese has truly grown as a pitcher, he will succeed where Pelfrey failed.  But if he can't rise to the occasion, his career stands to take a downward turn for the first time since his initial call-up to the big leagues in 2008.

Mike Pelfrey never fully realized his potential in New York.  But even though he is now in Minnesota, he can still help the Mets.  Pelfrey's 2011 season can serve as a lesson to Jonathon Niese - a lesson on how not to pitch when thrust into a new situation.

Jonathon Niese is signed through the 2016 season.  It's up to him to prove to the Mets that they made the right decision.

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