Jon Niese is recovered from his shoulder woes. His arm feels good. He’s revised his mechanics to correct the bad habits that led to shoulder irritation in the first place. But those revised mechanics are causing him to miss his location, leading to innings that blow up on him, as happened twice against the Nationals Wednesday night.
That’s the official narrative: mechanics, repetition, patience.
I’m waiting for the explanation of what mechanical flaw causes Niese to forget to cover first base. Or how tinkering with his motion dictated that he throw a changeup to a guy who hadn’t been able to do anything with his fastball.
Before we go any further, let’s review: This is Niese’s seventh year in the big leagues. He’ll turn 28 while some other team plays in the World Series. He’s making $7 million a year.
And yet every year we read stories that seem to be more about his focus and preparation than his pitching.
Recall two years ago, when Niese was battered by the Toronto Blue Jays and wound up watching his catcher pitch the end of the game. After that debacle, Dan Warthen summoned Niese to a meeting with Ricky Bones, Johan Santana and R.A. Dickey. You can read about that here, as it was recounted after Niese’s next, far more effective start against the Pirates. But read about it with your ear attuned to what was said in the meeting, and the reason it was called in the first place. Basically, Niese got called out for being lazy. He hadn’t studied the Blue Jays’ hitters, assuming his arsenal of pitches would be enough to see him through. And judging from Warthen’s comments, this wasn’t the first time that had happened. Santana and Dickey weren’t there to talk pitch grips or arm angles, but to preach the importance of doing your frigging homework.
The older I get, the more I appreciate the mental aspect of pitching. Dillon Gee doesn’t have anything close to what the gods of genetics gave Niese, but he’s studied what he does for a living and worked diligently so that his brain gives his arm every possible chance to succeed. Decades of watching baseball have made me admire pitchers like that more and more — your Gees and Rick Reeds and Greg Madduxes. And it’s left me even more in awe of guys who were born with thunderbolts for arms and worked their butts off to outmaneuver batters before ever throwing a pitch — Tom Seaver and Pedro Martinez and Santana come to mind. Conversely, it’s made me more impatient with guys whose arms seem far superior to their heads: Victor Zambrano. Or Mike Pelfrey. Or Niese.
If you ever run across a clip of Seaver or Santana or Al Leiter talking pitching, stop and watch, because it’s riveting stuff. Watch Niese discuss pitching and you’ll thank God that your heart and lungs are part of the autonomic nervous system. That’s punishing a guy for not being outgoing with the press, which is admittedly unfair — Niese’s job is to throw a baseball, not to make conversation. But for Pedro’s sake, this is his craft and his calling, and he talks about it like he’s describing the graveyard shift at a factory pressing corrugated cardboard. (If you dare, watch this video of poor Matt Cerrone gamely trying to make conversation while riding to Citi Field with a narcoleptic Niese.)
So what’s Niese learned since he was hauled off to his meeting by Warthen? Well, you had to scratch your head a couple of weeks back when Niese clearly thought Chris Young had let him down by not making a catch against Milwaukee, then sagged through a terrible inning. Was that mechanical, or mental?
Last night he twice was slow covering first, and Ron Darling rightly roasted him for lousy pitch selection. Was that about the arm, or the brain?
Niese has terrific stuff. He’s left-handed. He’s owed $7 million in 2015, $9 million in 2016, $10 million option in 2017, $10.5 million in 2018. That’s a smart, team-friendly contract, one that keeps Niese’s peak years cost controlled. It should work well for the Mets. But I think it would work even better for some other team. Niese is a terrific trade candidate on a team with a surplus of starting pitchers. I’d argue that contract makes him the best trade candidate on the staff once you subtract the guys the Mets would be obviously insane to move. (Why on earth would you trade Zack Wheeler, who has a higher ceiling and seems a lot more motivated to learn and improve?)
If you made me GM for a day, Niese is the pitcher I’d ship out of town for that additional bat the Mets so desperately need. Maybe some other staff ace can convince him of the importance of doing his homework. Maybe some other pitching coach can get him to think about what to throw. Maybe some other manager can teach him to cover first base all the time instead of sometimes.
Hell, I’ll even volunteer to drive him to the airport.