During the past three seasons in Pittsburgh, Ray Searage has worked his magic to rejuvenate the careers of struggling pitchers. From increasing the usage of a two-seam fastball to induce ground balls and having a pitch framing expert behind the dish, the Pirates rotation has raised a few eyebrows. A few key pitchers that benefited from Searage were AJ Burnett, Francisco Liriano, Edinson Volquez, JA Happ, and many more. After seeing the success of these four pitchers, it becomes very difficult to doubt a pitching acquisition made by the Pirates. Therefore, who will be Searage’s next project?
On December 9, the Pirates agreed to send soon-to-be-free-agent second basemen Neil Walker to the Mets in exchange for veteran left-hander Jon Niese. Niece was drafted by the Mets in the 7th round in 2005 out of Defiance High School in western Ohio. Since 2010, he has been a consistent innings eater for the Mets rotation known for inducing a ton of ground balls. In 2012, Niese sported a 13-9 record with a 3.40 ERA and a career-high 2.6 WAR. From 2010 to 2014, Niese was consistently a 2 WAR pitcher, which would project as an average to above-average mid-rotation starter. However, in 2015, he struggled at times and posted a career low 0.9 WAR. Even though he posted a career high 55% ground ball percentage, he was not missing bats much with his 5.8 K/9. It’s safe to say that Niese is seeking a rebound in 2016 and he has come to the right place.
Heading into the 2016 season, I am very high on Jon Niese and believe he fits perfectly in a Pirates rotation managed by Ray Searage. Niese has a repertoire that includes a sinker, cutter, and four-seam fastball that will induce many ground balls. With their statistical findings on defensive alignments outlined in Big Data Baseball by Travis Sawchik, the Pirates could use Niese to their advantage. When looking into some of Niese’s pitch-usage data, I found his situation comparable to that of J.A. Happ. After acquiring a struggling Happ from Seattle during last summer’s trade deadline, Searage noticed a decrease in the usage of his fastball and encouraged him to be more aggressive. Happ adjusted his approach almost immediately and put up an impressive 7-2 record with a 1.85 ERA in 11 starts. So how does Jon Niese’s struggles compare to Happ’s? I found my answer after referring to brooksbaseball.net for pitch-usage data in his 2012 season and 2015 season. In 2012, Niese threw his four-seam fastball at 35.7 percent compared to 20.2 percent in 2015. This is a significant difference in a matter of only four seasons. I would also like to note that he reduced his cutter usage by almost 7 percent in that time span.
Upon his return to Pittsburgh, I am expecting Searage to take a similar approach with Niese as he did with Happ. Increasing the fastball usage and being more aggressive will only benefit Niese with an even better defense behind him. Steamers projects Niese to repeat at a 5.8 K/9 in 2016. However, Fans projections sees him returning to a 6.4 K/9. Let’s not forget that he is throwing to pitch-framing extraordinaire Francisco Cervelli, which may work in his favor to get more strikes. While I believe that he will be able to miss a few more bats than last year, his main strength will be pitching to contact and inducing ground balls into the many defensive alignments behind him.
While the Pirates’ projected rotation may seem a bit top-heavy at the moment, look for Niese to be a solid #3 behind Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano. By mid season, the Pirates rotation could be a force with the debuts of top prospect Tyler Glasnow and former second overall draft pick Jameson Taillon. In October, while many may disagree now, watch for the Pirates to be declared the winner of the offseason swap with the Mets.
I am currently a junior at Washington & Jefferson College in Washington, PA majoring in Economics with a concentration in Entrepreneurial Studies. Baseball is the love of my life.