As the International League recessed for the all-star break, only three of the circuit's pitchers had struck out batters at a higher rate than had Jon Niese.
Of those three, Norfolk's Chris Tillman and Lehigh Valley's Carlos Carrasco easily can be identified from their prospect mug shots, while 26-year-old Charlotte righthander Carlos Torres was proving that late improvement is better than no improvement at all.
Niese, a lefthander with last-place Buffalo, had logged 8.24 whiffs per nine innings, a height he had not reached since 2006. Back then, the second-year pro spent the summer in Hagerstown, Md., and Port St. Lucie, Fla., pitching for the Mets' two A-ball affiliates.
Now 22, Niese is much more than a one-trick pony. He complements strikeout stuff with fine control (2.47 walks per nine this season) and a real aversion to the gopher ball (seven home runs allowed in 15 starts).
But that pitcher, the No. 77 prospect in the game at the outset of the season, was nowhere to be found during April and May. The Bisons tripped to a 14-34 (.292) record, and Niese stumbled right along with them.
Through start No. 8, he was 0-5, 8.05, having given up 55 hits, including six home runs, and allowed a .329 opponent average in 38 innings. While his strikeout-to-walk ratio held steady at 36-to-13, seemingly everything else—grounders finding holes, double plays being botched, bloopers falling in fair territory—went wrong.
"Early in the year I might have been throwing too high a percentage of fastballs," Niese said. "The batters here in Triple-A caught on to that and hit me around pretty good. Since then, I've been working with (pitching coach) Ricky (Bones) on my offspeed stuff."
Even with Niese's struggles, the Mets called up the young lefty in early May to replace injured starter Oliver Perez. He pitched well in his first start, giving up two runs in six innings against the Pirates, but the wheels came off in a follow-up effort against the Braves, a team he shut out for eight innings last September. This time, Niese surrendered five runs in 4 2⁄3 innings and found himself on the first train back to Buffalo.
But according to Mets vice president of player development Tony Bernazard, Niese remains the organization's most big league-ready pitching prospect.
"We were disappointed that he didn't perform better early in the year," Bernazard said, "but that's part of the process. That's part of being a professional player.
"He has made adjustments, and he's pitching the way we think he can pitch. The issue is to be consistent, and we're very happy to see him performing well now."
Journey Through The Past
A Mets' seventh-round pick in 2005, Niese garnered attention as an amateur for his big-breaking, 12-to-6 curveball. But back then, when Niese was winning back-to-back Ohio state player of the year awards at Defiance High, his curveball was only in its nascent stages of development. He could spin it, but he could command it only sometimes.
"All our kids have pretty good curveballs," said Defiance head coach Tom Held, who still has regular contact with Niese, his former pupil. "We use curveball drills that we've been working with for the past 15 years, and we feel they've provided good results.
"These days, Jon has learned how to command his curve, and to throw it hard. But when he left here, he was throwing more in the 68-70 (mph) range. But he built it up to 71-72 after turning pro, and now throws it as hard as 75."
Pitch f/x data presented by fangraphs.com indicate that he has indeed averaged 73 mph with the pitch. Niese's take: "I keep working on it every day in the bullpen, throwing it as hard as I can. I've gotten to the point where I am able to throw it for a strike or for a put-away pitch."
Held remembers the freshman version of Niese as overweight—a bit "roly-poly"—and featuring velocity that topped out at about 72 mph. Remarkably, Held also coached Dodgers righthander Chad Billingsley, a 2003 first-round pick, for whom he trekked to St. Louis to watch in the All-Star Game.
"Jon was more of a late bloomer," Held said. "I always thought Chad would have been a position player. As a 6-foot righty, you see a lot more of those guys. Jon, being a 6-2, 6-3 lefty with a loose arm and great work ethic—even if he didn't know where the ball was going—he had a big advantage. In his case, you didn't have to throw 94-95 to get noticed.
"Coming in to his junior year, we thought (Jon) was going to be on the JV team. He had a few good scrimmages—and he was a heck of a hitter in high school—so we brought him up to varsity. Then he had a great junior year. That was the year his fastball creeped up into the 86-88 (mph) range, and he started getting attention from colleges.
"Well, he went to work and he was almost unhittable his senior year."
One thing remains constant for Niese, who now is listed at 6-foot-4, 215 pounds: his drop-and-drive delivery which features a pronounced backward lean as he loads his arm at the balance point of his delivery.
"He had probably a bit more of a lean (in high school)," Held said, "and it probably caused him problem with command. He's always had to work on balance. And he was someone who would fall off mound or he'd fly open once in awhile. But he's improved that with repetition in pro ball, and as a result, his command has gotten so much better.
"Look at his delivery—for a tall guy he really gets low to ground. He really uses his legs and his lower body. There aren't a lot of those guys, especially lefties."
In seven starts from June 7 until the all-star break, Niese once again pitched like the prospect he is, the one who ranked fourth in the Double-A Eastern League last season in both ERA and strikeouts per nine.
He handcuffed Rochester with a five-hit, 10-strikeout shutout on July 5, highlighting a five-week stretch that resulted in a 4-1, 1.09 record. He cut his season ERA almost in half, from 8.05 down to 4.12, and in those 49 1⁄3 innings, Niese fanned 44, walked 11 and allowed just 38 hits—only one of which left the yard.
Niese owes a lot of credit to his curveball, but the bender is just one weapon at his disposal. This season, he's been placing an emphasis on the two other C's: his cutter and his changeup.
All three taken together have made him a formidable opponent of righthanded batters, who batted just .268/.315/.382 against Niese during the first half. Those results bode well for the young lefty, who had faced more than three and a half times as many righthanded batters as lefthanded ones on the year, and it's a proportion that will hold at the next level.
"I think my new cutter has helped me a lot against righthanded batters," he said. "I'm able to throw it for backdoor strikes when behind in the count. And sometimes I run it in on righthanded batters—it gives me a different look than my straight fastball and helps me get them out."
Niese seemed to flourish once he was paired at Buffalo with 25-year-old catcher Rene Rivera, a Mariners' second-round pick 2001 who has spent the past five seasons either in the high minors or in the big leagues.
"Rene and I work well together," Niese said. "He's taught me so much, and now we know each others' tendencies. It seems like each outing just gets better and better—him calling pitches, knowing what I'm thinking about in each situation.
"He tells me keep using my cutter, to keep mixing it up, to not start showing my pitches until I need to—to just keep pounding the bottom of the strike zone."
Never known as a finesse lefty, Niese didn't command his changeup in high school because he hardly ever needed to throw it. His curve and his 88-92 mph fastball were enough to get by. That same changeup grip has stayed with him through the years, but now he's made a small tweak to the way he delivers the pitch, to the detriment of opposing batters.
"That's what Jon does: He picks peoples' brains," Held said. "He's willing to learn and get better. He's never been someone who thought he already knows everything."