I hear Jon Niese is taking a physical with #Yankees and if all is OK, he will sign a minor league contract
— Joel Sherman (@Joelsherman1) February 19, 2017
It looks like the Yankees will be adding another arm to the farm in the form in LHP Jon Niese. Seems like your typical insurance signing, although as expected Niese will be invited to major league camp and the team will look at him as a potential starter and reliever. With the current state of the club’s injury-riddled rotation, they need all the options they can get, but Niese could also be a potentially good mid-relief option as an innings eater. The guy has spent basically his whole career as a starter.
I was honestly surprised to see that Niese is only 30 years old. He’s the type of guy who’s name it feels like has been thrown around forever, especially if you’ve followed the Mets at all in the last decade or so. He spent 8 seasons with the New York Metropolitans before getting traded to the Pirates last offseason for 2B Neil Walker, before being promptly traded back to New York at the trade deadline. In 2016, Niese pitched in 29 games, starting 20 of those, to a 5.50 ERA (5.62 FIP), 6.55 K/9 and 3.50 BB/9 (he’s a contact pitcher).
The mild disaster that was last season doesn’t tell the whole story though. For most of his career, Niese has been a sub-4.00 ERA/FIP guy. So here, it seems we have a case where for once (for once!) the Pirates actually made a pitcher WORSE, which feels almost sacrilegious to say about a pitching coach in Ray Searage who has turned around the careers of guys like Francisco Liriano, Edinson Volquez, A.J. Burnett, etc. etc. Here’s a Fangraphs article by Neil Weinberg in response to this phenomena though.
Basically, while Niese kept his GB rates relatively high last season, as he tends to do, his HR/9 skyrocketed to 1.74 by mid-season (his previous career high was 1.04). By the end of the year, it was up to 1.86. This number was due in large part to how well righties hit him last year. Weinberg posits that this came as a result of Niese throwing fewer curveballs and more fastballs, specifically down and in to right-handed hitters. This is a relatively tried and true strategy that the Pirates’ pitchers use. However, for a guy like Niese, who by no stretch of the imagination has anything even close to what you might call “dominant stuff”, this isn’t exactly the best way to attack hitters. You don’t want to be throwing the same upper-80’s fastball in the same spot to the same hitters over and over again. That’s just bad baseball.
So, while Niese’s 2016 was borderline terrible, it seems like there might be a relatively easy fix in the works. The Yankees themselves have a track record for buying new leases on the careers of washed-up pitchers. Overall I think it’s a good move by the team. When it comes down to it, another arm who can eat innings is another arm who can eat innings. I think Niese still has the potential to become that mid-3 ERA/FIP guy that he’s been for most of his career, and to pick that sort of ceiling up on a minor league deal is a pretty good signing.