One thing I enjoy doing is comparing 1st and 2nd half splits to spot anomalies and possible mid-season skill growth of players. Niese’s 2014 splits stood out remarkably on two of my favorite metrics: First pitch strike % (F-Strike) and Swinging Strike % (SwStr).
Niese has a career 61.4% F-Strike and 7.8 SwStr. Last year’s first half he was struggling along with a 59.2% F-Strike and 5.8% SwStr. Then something changed. In the 2nd half his F-Strike soared to an elite level 67.8%. SwStr rebounded to 8.6%. What happened?
A solid changeup happened.
For most of his career Niese had only thrown a changeup about 4% of the time. He dabbled with it when he first came up but it was never a pitch that he seemed to completely devote himself to developing even though it was clear he needed one. A weaker split vs right handed batters was always present in his game.
In 2013 he began throwing the pitch again. Below is his usage rate vs RHB.
After a career changeup usage rate of 5.8% against RHB, Niese threw it more than 17% of the time against righties in April 2013. But he wasn’t having much success with it. A modest 8.5% swinging strike rate was offset by a lack of command. 49.8% of these changeups were called a ball. The lack of success caused him to return usage closer to career norms.
That 8-9% usage trend vs RHB continued in the first 4 months of the 2014 season but here’s where it gets interesting. Over that stretch, the pitch suddenly became decent!
From opening day to his first start in August, Niese was having remarkable success with his changeup. That 49.8% called-ball rate in 2013? Now 37.2%. His swinging strike percentage on the pitch had spiked 3%. Jon Niese finally had a weapon against right-handed hitters!
It was at this point of the season that either Niese, pitching coach Dan Warthen, or somebody else in the Mets organization noticed that his changeup had become a very valuable pitch for him. Beginning with his August 6th start vs Washington through the end of the season, Niese’s usage of his changeup rose dramatically.
Over this stretch, command of the pitch also kept improving. 36.0% called ball and 12.5% swinging strike rate. In 2014, righties hit just .239 against the changeup with a .114 ISO. A 79 wRC+.
Also interesting, the increased usage from August 6th through the end of the year may have had a side effect of increasing the whiff rate of his other pitches. Both his four-seam fastball and his cutter fooled few batters over the past couple years. From April 2012 to July 2014, The four-seamer had generated a 7.3% swinging strike rate. The cutter had a marginally better 8.9% swinging strike rate. During the Aug-Sept stretch finish where he was heavily utilizing his new changeup?
Suddenly having to deal with a solid changeup, righties started swinging and missing at Niese’s other pitches. In this case the rising tide of his changeup definitely lifted all boats.
I’m not going to dig too far into why Niese’s changeup is suddenly more effective, but it’s not too tricky to figure out. For one, he did get a slight increase in vertical drop on the pitch in 2014 that he didn’t have in the past and that certainly is driving some of the success. But not to be overlooked is the fact that he learned how to command the pitch and throw it where he wanted, whenever he wanted. I believe this is the more decisive factor in his success with the pitch.
If Niese can stay healthy (always a big question mark surrounding him), he’s an interesting guy to keep an eye in 2015. He doesn’t have the stuff to suddenly become an ace but if he can neutralize right handed hitters with this new weapon and bring those RH/LH splits in to line, he’ll be very useful pitcher for the Mets and a savvy pickup for fantasy owners.
With the continuation of this changeup development and a little luck, I can envision a career season in the area of 195 IP, 3.20 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 160 Ks. He might not be so average anymore.