Saturday, April 11, 2015

An Open Letter To Those Who Don't Like Jon Niese

Photo by Anthony Causi/NY Post

Dear Mets fans,

I've been a Mets supporter for 34 years, investing my time - and occasional money - in the team since the year after the magic was supposedly back (it wasn't).  In those three and a half decades, I've seen hundreds of players come and go.  Some of these players have been universally beloved by the fans, while others are married to Mrs. Armando Benitez.

While some of the vitriol dished out to those less fortunate players has been well-deserved, others have received the hate for reasons unknown.  One such player is Jonathon Joseph Niese.

Was Niese voted "Mr. Personality" in his high school yearbook?  Probably not.  Is he a "rah-rah" type of guy?  Not that I've ever seen.  Does he have a cool super-hero nickname like Matt Harvey?  Only if you consider Super Schnoz to be a sweet moniker.

Are these reasons for Mets fans to dislike Niese as much as they do?  Not at all.  But somehow, in seven-plus seasons as a Met, the 28-year-old southpaw has never been a fan-favorite.  And he's done nothing to make this happen other than be a serviceable pitcher.

Jon Niese is not paid like an ace, so no one should expect him to pitch like one.  But for several years, he's pitched better than an average pitcher.

Since 2012, Niese has a 30-28 record for a team that has finished below .500 in each season.  He has made 85 starts in the last three-plus seasons, posting a 3.47 ERA.  Of all the pitchers who have made that many starts since the start of the 2012 campaign, only 18 have posted a lower ERA, including Clayton Kershaw, Felix Hernandez, David Price, Adam Wainwright, Madison Bumgarner and Max Scherzer - all of whom are considered to be among the best pitchers in baseball.  In addition, 16 of those 18 hurlers have made at least one All-Star team in that time frame, with the two exceptions being Kyle Lohse (3.34 ERA) and Hiroki Kuroda (3.44 ERA).

Going back to August 2012, Niese has also allowed three earned or fewer in 55 of his last 63 starts.  That's just eight starts where Niese gave up four earned runs or more in two and a half seasons, which is amazing when you consider that last year alone, Madison Bumgarner had ten such games and Max Scherzer had nine.  You may know Bumgarner as the most recent World Series most valuable player and Scherzer as the $210 million man.

But those who don't like Niese fail to notice things like that.  Instead, they look at how he gets rattled when his teammates make errors behind him, thereby forcing Niese to record extra outs.  Well, guess what?  That happens to most pitchers!

Including the two unearned runs allowed in Friday night's loss to the Braves, Niese has allowed 25 such runs since 2012.  That's fewer than the number of unearned runs allowed by Stephen Strasburg (30 unearned tallies), Jon Lester (28) and R.A. Dickey (27) over the same time period.  And all three of those pitchers made All-Star teams since 2012 as well.

Finally, for those who are sabermetrically inclined, Niese has a 104 ERA+ over the last three-plus seasons.  Those are pretty solid numbers for a pitcher who, for some reason, is a disappointment to so many fans.  That's also better than the ERA+ posted by Tim Hudson (101 ERA+ since 2012), Matt Cain (100 ERA+) and Scott Kazmir (100 ERA+).  And you guessed it.  Hudson, Cain and Kazmir have all been All-Stars in that time period, with Cain starting the 2012 Midsummer Classic and Hudson and Kazmir both selected for last year's game.

Jon Niese has never blown hitters away, but he still has the ninth-most strikeouts in franchise history.  The eight pitchers ahead of him are a who's who of the greatest Mets pitchers of all-time.  Tom Seaver, Dwight Gooden, Jerry Koosman, Sid Fernandez, David Cone, Ron Darling, Al Leiter and Jon Matlack are the only hurlers in club annals who can claim more whiffs than Niese - a fact that still doesn't get Niese a whiff of respect.

When the Mets were in the midst of their second consecutive late-season collapse in 2008, one of their own pitched eight shutout innings to temporarily halt the bleeding in a mid-September victory over the Braves.  Who was that clutch pitcher?  That was Jonathon Joseph Niese.  But because the Mets didn't make the playoffs, Niese's effort was largely forgotten.

In 1969, Tom Seaver had one of the greatest pitching performances in team history, retiring the first 25 batters he faced in a crucial matchup against the Chicago Cubs before allowing a single to Jimmy Qualls.  He then retired the final two batters and settled for a one-hit shutout.  Forty-four years later, Matt Harvey had his bid for a perfect game broken up on an infield single by Alex Rios of the Chicago White Sox.  The seventh inning roller was the only base runner allowed by Harvey in his nine innings of work - a game won by the Mets in ten innings.  Seaver and Harvey are two of the three pitchers in Mets history to pitch nine innings and allow just one base runner in a single game, facing 28 batters to record 27 outs.  Who was the third?  That would be Jonathon Joseph Niese, who allowed just a third-inning double to the Padres' Chris Denorfia in June 2010.  The two-bagger was all that stood between Niese and a perfect game.

Jon Niese was almost perfect once, even if fans don't have an almost perfect recollection of that game.

People who weren't around in 1969 are constantly reminded of Seaver's imperfect game, just as current Mets fans remember Harvey's gem as if it were yesterday.  But hardly anyone - other than those who were in attendance at Citi Field for the second game of a day-night doubleheader on a chilly June evening in 2010 - can recall Niese's effort.  Perhaps it's because he has never been a must-watch pitcher the way Seaver was and Harvey is.  Or perhaps it's because no one wants to admit that Niese actually accomplished such a rare feat.

Jon Niese came up late in the 2008 season and was immediately thrust into a playoff race.  He has yet to play in a meaningful late-season game since.  That means he doesn't have the big-game experience that fellow southpaws (and more treasured former Mets) Jerry Koosman, Jon Matlack, Sid Fernandez and Al Leiter have.  Perhaps that's another reason why Niese isn't appreciated, even though he ranks just behind all four of those pitchers on the team's all-time ranks for left-handed starting pitchers.

You may think he's boring.  You may also think he doesn't have charisma, talent and various other intangibles.  But what you should really do is reconsider your opinions about Jon Niese, especially when you weigh the facts and realize how much better he's been than what you may have thought.

Since signing his team-friendly five-year, $25.5 million contract at the outset of the 2012 campaign, Niese has performed as well as - if not better than - several All-Star pitchers.  Niese has suffered some nagging injuries over the years, but has still made at least 24 starts in every season since 2010, making him one of only 32 pitchers who has made 24 or more starts in each of the last five campaigns.  In fact, Niese is one of just a dozen pitchers in Mets history to make two dozen starts in five separate seasons.  And if Niese reaches 24 starts in 2015, he'd be one of nine Mets pitchers to reach that total six times.

So what does everybody want from Niese?  He's not Matt Harvey.  He's not someone who's going to strike out 10 or more batters every game.  And he's not going to pitch a shutout all the time.  What Niese will do is keep his team in the game more often than not.  He will also keep opposing teams from putting up crooked numbers on the scoreboard.  And he's not making the money that a perennial All-Star makes.  But no matter what he does, it will never be good enough for Mets fans.

I'm sure many teams would love to have a pitcher of Jonathon Niese's caliber.  And I'd bet fans of those teams wouldn't pick apart everything he does on the mound the way Mets fans do.  Jon Niese will never be the best pitcher on the team.  But he doesn't have to be.  He just has to pitch the way he has over the past three-plus seasons.  And that's probably better than what his haters deserve.

A Jon Niese appreciator

It's a crying shame that Mets fans don't appreciate Jon Niese more.


Mets Guy in Michigan said...

Awesome post, Ed!

Ed Leyro (and Joey Beartran) said...

Thanks so much, Dave. I have a soft spot in my heart for Niese, especially since he's one of the few Mets left who played at Shea. Plus, I was at that game at Citi Field when he allowed one base runner in nine innings that no one remembers.