In another bleak September devoid of any possible playoff hope, Jonathon Niese’s final starts will be important for New York Mets fans to track.
After plummeting to fourth place in the NL East with an 11-28 record after the All-Star break, the Mets sit at 57-68. Barring a miracle, the Mets will fall short of a postseason bid for the sixth consecutive season.
It’s easy for disenfranchised Mets fans to give up and focus on the NFL instead, but September could indicate what lies ahead in the franchise’s future.
Although there are other storylines to watch—can R.A. Dickey continue his Cy Young push? Will Matt Harvey sustain his astounding start? Will Jason Bay’s average dip below .100?—one of the most pivotal players to monitor is Niese.
In his third full season in New York’s rotation, Niese has finally taken the next step expected from him for years. One of the few consistent cogs in a dysfunctional squad, the 25-year-old is 10-6 with a 3.49 ERA and 1.15 WHIP for the Mets.
Everything finally seems to be clicking for the young lefty. He's limited his blowup innings of late, no longer allowing a bad sequence to ruin an otherwise effective day. Niese is now a pitcher who pitches deep into the game, having gone at least seven innings in 11 of his 24 starts.
Before fans can exhale a sigh of relief and pencil in Niese as a frontline starter for the next few years, his September starts must be watched closely. In order to convince the MLB that he will serve as a competent No. 2 or 3 starter, Niese needs to close out the season with a bang.
Poor finishes have plagued Niese throughout his career. Niese concluded last season by surrendering 18 earned runs in 22.2 innings through August. After pitching effectively for the majority of the year, his lackluster August skyrocketed his ERA to 4.40 before an injury shut his season down.
Two years ago, Niese allowed 30 earned runs during his final seven starts. On Aug. 25, he sported a 3.33 ERA, and fans expressed the same jubilance they’re displaying now. He ended the season with a 4.20 ERA and 1.46 WHIP.
While the surface numbers look much better, Niese is the same pitcher from prior seasons. If anything, his 2011 peripherals still look a little better.
Despite the dreary numbers last year, a look at his underlying numbers on Fangraphs tells a different tale. Niese’s FIP stood more than a run lower than his ERA at 3.36, and his .333 BABIP caused him to yield 178 hits in 157.1 innings.
After two years of performing below his peripherals, he has finally received a bit of good luck. Niese’s current 3.83 FIP is now higher than his ERA, and his BABIP is a career-low .271.
While those stats aren't the brightest indicators of continued success for the lefty, Niese is still a solid— albeit unspectacular—pitcher.
Throughout his career, Niese has fanned batters at a solid clip while limiting his walks. Niese’s 7.64 K/9 ratio resonates right on par with his 7.65 career mark. He’ll likely never punch out 200 batters in a season, but it’s still good enough for him to function as a capable starter.
The walk rate is especially encouraging. Each year, Niese has managed to decrease the amount of free passes he distributes; his BB/9 ratio has lessened from 3.21, to 2.52, to 2.25 throughout his three seasons in the majors.
His late tailspins are not without some justification. In 2010, Niese pitched his first full season in the majors following season-ending surgery on his torn hamstring the prior year. The Mets' decision to allow their valuable young asset to throw through September was a bit of a head-scratcher.
If Niese were in the same situation this year, the Mets likely would have adhered to the same medical advice as the Washington Nationals and cut his season short. Niese would have finished with a 3.85 ERA if they shut him down after 160 innings.
An injured rib cage prematurely terminated his 2011 season, so maybe some discomfort is partially to blame for his subpar finish.
No more excuses. Now is the time for Niese to prove that he is more than just a tease who will never harness all his talents to their full potential.
On a team with few young players with above-average potential, the Mets need Niese to remain a constant contributor in the starting rotation. Fans are praying that Matt Harvey and Zack Wheeler form a potent one-two punch for a while, but they’ll still need someone like Niese to deliver as an effective No. 3 starter.
Mets fans could really use something exciting right about now. Heck, we’ll take anything.
So please, Jon Niese, don’t fall off the grid this September. Give us a reason to overuse some puns substituting “Niese” for “nice” (or is it just me doing that?) this offseason.