Maggie Wiggin, Contributor
Jon Niese will take the mound Tuesday night as the ace of his team’s rotation, leading them in ERA (2.54), innings pitched (85), and WAR (1.9).
After an injury-plagued Spring Training and just a year removed from a potentially devastating rotator cuff injury, expectations were low for Niese, both in terms of performance and durability. However, he has excelled in both of these regards, despite – or perhaps because of – a drop in his fastball velocity of over a full mile per hour…
Niese has stood in contrast to most of his fellow pitchers by showing an active awareness of his own injury concerns, whether by pulling himself out of his start prior to the shoulder injury last season or by slowing down his rehab during the Spring. It may be that his restrained pitching approach this season is reflecting his desire to stay strong and healthy throughout the season, especially in the face of increasing evidence that ties pitcher injury to consistent pitching at max effort.
By reducing the velocity on his fastball and mixing in more offspeed pitches, Niese could be, intentionally or unintentionally, protecting himself from overtaxing his arm.
A decrease in velocity is strongly correlated with a loss of effectiveness, but Niese is having the best season of his career. So how is he doing it?
To start with, he’s never been dependent on blowing hitters away for his success. His career strikeout rate is just over 7.0 per nine innings, so his game has always been to let batters put the ball in play, an approach that is less dependent on velocity.
We’re also seeing Niese mix his pitches better than ever. He’s always had a solid curveball and cutter, but both are hittable if he’s throwing them too predictably. Right now, he’s throwing five different pitches at least 10% of the time – a 2-seam fastball, a 4-seam fastball, a cutter, a curveball, and a changeup. That changeup is being used more than ever this season and with good results.
Not only is Niese using five different pitches, he’s changing his game plan every start. His last time out, he held the Brewers to just one run over 7 2/3 innings pitched using mostly his 2-seamer and his changeup with almost no cutters. The start before, he had similar success against the Giants while throwing his cutter more than any other pitch. Prior to that, he dominated the Phillies with his 4-seamer, using his curveball and changeup only sparingly.
This pattern of wide variability is something Niese has shown all season and it reflects a mature pitcher who knows his stuff and, moreover, knows his opponent. These smarts will keep him effective regardless of how hard he’s throwing – and should set a solid example for the young pitchers the Mets’ future is depending on.