Cutter helps Niese to nice rookie year

Posted on August 23, 2010 by

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No matter how you look at things, the development of Jonathon Niese has been one of the top storylines for the Mets in 2010. But coming into this season mainstream scouting reports were behind the times on Niese. Baseball America had this report on his arsenal:

Niese’s signature pitch is a 12-to-6 curveball, though he sometimes has difficulty getting it called for strikes. He can run his fastball into the low 90s, and he uses its natural cutting and sinking action to battle righthanders. He also has a solid changeup and he consistently throws strikes.

Prospect maven John Sickes said:

When healthy, Niese throws an 88-92 MPH fastball, a big-breaking curveball, and a decent changeup.

However, if you read Marc Hulet’s New York Mets: Top 10 Prospects article at FanGraphs, you would have been tipped off to something else.

Many Mets were cursed by injuries in ’09 and Niese was one of them. A torn hamstring tendon ended his season prematurely in August after he had made just five MLB starts. Despite that fact, Niese left a solid impression after posting a 3.25 FIP in 25.2 innings. His most effective pitch was a newly-honed cutter.

According to the Pitch F/X data over at TexasLeaguers.com, Niese has thrown a cutter 25.7 percent of the time in 2010, compared to 14.5 percent for his curve and 4.5 percent for his changeup. Furthermore, Niese throws his cutter for a strike 71.8 percent of the time and gets a swing and a miss 12.3 percent of the time, both figures his best marks of any of the pitches in his arsenal.

FanGraphs shows Niese’s cutter as a pitch 8.6 runs above average. It also shows him using his cutter over 30 percent of the time both when he is behind in the count and when he gets to two strikes. Here is his breakdown by pitch count:

0-0  21%
1-0  33%
2-0  32%
3-0   4%
0-1  23%
1-1  25%
2-1  37%
3-1  36%
0-2  12%
1-2  26%
2-2  34%
3-2  36%

The cutter has been a good pitch for Niese because he can throw it when hitters are looking for the fastball when they are ahead in the count and he can throw it instead of the curve when hitters get to two strikes.

The end result this year so far is an 8-5 record and a 3.33 ERA. Niese finally broke into the win column after his last start, ending a stretch of three straight Quality Starts in which he did not get a decision. But Niese has not been particularly unlucky in that regard. Baseball Prospectus has a stat called E(W) which they define as, “Expected win record for the pitcher, based on how often pitchers with the same innings pitched and runs allowed earned a win or loss historically.” Niese has an Expected W-L record of 10-7.

His ERA is another matter. Right now Niese’s ERA translates into a 120 ERA+, which is a nice mark for anyone and an especially good mark for a rookie. In fact, Niese currently has the sixth-best ERA+ all-time among Mets rookie starting pitchers.

145 – 1968 Jerry Koosman
145 – 1972 Jon Matlack
137 – 1984 Doc Gooden
133 – 1994 Bobby Jones
122 – 1967 Tom Seaver
120 – 2010 Jonathon Niese

While the official qualifications for rookie status is fewer than 50 IP, Jones placed eighth in the 1994 Rookie of the Year balloting despite throwing 61.2 innings in 1993.

But if you look at Niese’s peripherals, they do not add up to a 3.33 ERA. His FIP checks in at 3.91 and he has a 3.92 xFIP. Because those two numbers are nearly identical, we know that Niese has an average HR rate. Where Niese is really fortunate is with his strand rate. He currently has a 78.8 LOB% while the average starter strands around 70 percent of his baserunners. Last year Niese had a 69.4 strand rate.

So, we have a pitcher who probably should have a couple of more wins (and losses) and one whose ERA should be close to 4.00 for the season. Either way, this would probably put Niese in the discussion for Rookie of the Year honors in a normal year. But the 2010 NL rookie class is a very deep one, with Jaime Garica, Jason Heyward, Buster Posey, Gaby Sanchez and Mike Stanton, and Niese may not garner even a single third-place vote.

Even though Niese will not rank high in the voting, he has had an outstanding rookie season. He ranks as one of the top rookie pitchers in Mets history. And he has produced this year thanks to his cutter, a pitch that flew under the radar of many.

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Posted in: Perspectives