As Neil Walker launched his first home run of the season for the New York Mets, his counterpart in the December trade that sent him to the Big Apple was laboring through his first start with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
To be sure, Jon Niese did not have an overtly memorable night for his Pittsburgh debut. In five innings, Niese allowing four earned runs and struck out seven, giving the hometown crowd a mixed bag. However, looking deeper into his start, there are several takeaways.
Niese is a pitcher who absolutely must endeavor to keep his pitches low. A noted sinking-fastball/cut-fastball hurler, Niese, at times, struggled to keep his straight-heat four seamer low in the zone, letting hitters such as Jedd Gyorko tee off. (Gyorko launched a two-run home run). In last night’s start, Niese mixed in the four-seam more than anyone expected. If he can’t find the velocity to get away with it, leaving balls up in the zone can lead to more crooked lines.
Niese showed an intriguing amount of strikeout potential, clearly more than would be expected of someone who averaged 5.79 strikeouts per start last year. It wasn’t the total number of strikeouts that left that impression but rather the manner in which they came about. While no one will confuse him with Francisco Liriano, if Niese can continue to effectively keep batters off-balance by mixing up his moving pitches, he will have cleaner, more efficient innings.
From a pure swing-and-miss perspective, the left-hander only got stronger as the game went on. After facing the Cardinals lineup twice, Niese had excellent whiff percentages on his curveball and cutter during his last frame. With his ability to fool hitters during their second or third times against the southpaw, Niese has an ability to go deeper into games, something every major league manager appreciates.
It was not an inauspicious debut for the new Pirates starter, nor was it a head-turning display. However, the foundation has been laid, and it might just be stronger than people thought.
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