A Look at the Development of Jon Niese through PitchFX
By Josh Smolow
Now that Jon Niese has made four major-league starts in his career, it has been possible for us fans who have been unable to see Niese in the minors to see what the #1 pitching prospect (Ed: He’s not my #1!) in the organization can do. Jon Niese made three starts last year. One was excellent (against Atlanta), and two were not as good (Milwaukee and the Cubs). On Friday Niese made his 2009 debut against the Pirates; it was a rousing success. Is this a sign of progress and development in the last year, or just a blip? Using the PitchFX Tool*, we can attempt to find out more about Niese’s pitches to determine whether he has advanced in his development since we saw him last year.
Using PitchFX to analyze Jon Niese’s pitches thrown in 2008, we can see that he clearly threw three distinctly different pitches: a fastball, a changeup, and his devastating curveball. The below graphs show all of Niese’s pitches on two graphs. The first one shows the horizontal and vertical movement of all of his pitches, while the second one plots the horizontal movement of his pitches against the speed of those pitches. The second graph is used in order to better see the difference between Niese’s pitches (especially the changeup which can get lost in the fastball without speed factored in). The table below the graphs shows the average movement in each direction and average speed that Niese had on each pitch last year.
A note on reading the graphs, the graphs are essentially read as if you were the catcher or umpire viewing a pitch being thrown at you. A righty batter would be on the left of the graph and a lefty batter would be on the far right of the graph. Thus a pitch on the right side of the graph will be moving in on lefties and away from righties.
. . .
What do we see here? First, Niese’s curveball has tremendous movement, with 11 inches of drop (in addition to the drop caused normally by gravity) on average. It also has little horizontal movement compared to say, a slider, and thus can properly be called a 12 to 6 curve ball. The curveballs are the blue pitches inside the blue circle on the graph above. The curve-ball is Niese’s best pitch, but he only threw it 25% of the time last year.
Second, Niese’s fastball (The dots inside the red circle above, excluding the two red dots inside the green circle) is extremely variable in terms of its movement. It’s possible there are two different types of fastballs within this group (with one being the thicker cluster on the left and one being the less thick cluster on the very upper right of the chart) but it is hard to tell clearly if this is the case. On average, Niese’s fastball moves very little in on lefty batters and is almost straight at times, though its horizontal movement is highly variable (sometimes it moves a good deal in on lefties). In essence, Niese displays the classic four-seam fastball. The fastball doesn’t have great speed either, but Niese threw the pitch last year at least 2/3s of the time.
Third, Niese’s third pitch, the change up, is also highly variable in its movement. The changeups are the pitches inside the green circle (including the two red dots inside that circle). The change ups movement only slightly differs from that of the fastball and looks just like a fastball that moves more in on lefties than the average fastball does. The only difference in this pitch is that it is clearly slower than the fastball. You’d think that this pitch is thus perhaps Niese’s least effective, and it is (He had trouble throwing accurately). Still, Niese does not throw the change up very much, with the pitch having comprised of less than 10% of his pitches last year.
However, in 2009, Niese has had another 6 months in which to develop his stuff. Is there a clear difference? Has he developed further? Well, thanks to his start last Friday, we now have Pitchfx results from this year, and they’re listed below.
The answer to the question of whether Niese has developed….is yes. What we now see is four distinct clusters, as opposed to the three clusters seen in last year’s outings. Niese’s curveball unsurprisingly remains essentially the same, and he threw it only 16 times (out of 95 pitches…16% of all pitches were curves). This is not a surprise here, as it was already a major league worthy pitch last year.
However, his fastball has now split into two separate and distinct clusters. The first cluster (represented by Xs) appears to be similar to the fastball from last year. However the pitch now has a little more movement in on lefties. Niese threw this fastball a total of 65 times.
This new second fastball, represented by +s on the graph above, is different. It moves even more horizontally in on lefties and away from righties, and drops more than the first fastball. This It’s worth noting that not only is this fastball’s cluster above distinctly separate from the cluster of the first fastball, but that it moves in on lefties even more than any fastball that Niese threw all of last year! Toby informs me that Niese added a cutter last year, but this pitch moves the opposite direction of a cutter (a cutter would move more in on righties and away from lefties). Instead this pitch is a lot more like a sinker or two seam fastball and Niese appeared to use it this way. Eight of Niese’s 10 “sinkers” were thrown with men on base, seemingly in an attempt to gain a ground ball double play. The pitch was very effective, resulting in 3 outs (two of which were ground outs) and 5 pitches fouled off, with only two pitches missing the strike zone completely.
We can really see the difference in Niese’s fastballs through another graph that appears below. This graph compares the spin of each fastball (on the X axis) to the horizontal movement of those fastballs. On the left is the graph of Niese’s 2008 pitches while Niese’s pitches from his start last Friday are on the right. The value of spin in degrees essentially measures the direction of spin on the pitch thrown. A value of 0/360 degrees corresponds to topspin on a pitch, while a value of 180 degrees corresponds to backspin. Values of 90 or 270 degrees indicate total sidespin. Values in between these numbers represent a mixed spin on the ball.The graph below uses data derived from data labeled spin angle and spin magnitude by Dan Brooks over at Brooks Baseball.
(Changeups are also included in this graph and they’re the squares in both graphs)
Niese’s fastballs last year had a wide range of spin to match its wide range in horizontal movement. One fastball had a spin direction of as much as 176 degrees. This pitch was essentially thrown with pure backspin and had little horizontal movement whatsoever. One pitch had a spin direction of as little as 125 degrees. This pitch had good movement in on a left handed batter. You might notice that as a pitch's spin direction goes closer to 90 degrees, the fastball starts to move in more and more on lefties. Once again it is hard to tell in 2008 if he is throwing two separate fastballs, as it is one big cluster. Still, the less thick part of the cluster is very possibly a two seamer similar to the one seen this year. On average, this “two seamer,” had a spin direction of roughly 135 degrees. Still, the pitch is fairly variable. The thicker cluster seems to be evenly divided between spin directions of 150 and 165 degrees.
This year however, we can see a clear difference. First, once again, there are 2 clear clusters of fastballs (represented by the +s and the Xs). With the exception of one of the “two seam fastballs,” which is probably an outlier, the two-seam cluster is focused around the 120 degree mark. It’s worth noting that these pitches show a greater amount of sidespin than any fastball thrown last year. This is probably why the pitch shows a greater amount of horizontal movement than any pitch last year. This shows either an improvement in the two-seamer from last year or just that the pitch is completely new (probably the former). The other fastball cluster is also centered on a smaller value (150 degrees) than it was last year. This explains the improvement in Niese’s general four seam fastball's horizontal movement as described above.
This spin graph above shows us further prove that Niese’s two-seamer that appeared vs. Pittsburgh was not a fluke. Niese is throwing pitches with a spin direction on his two-seamer consistently that is different than he had ever achieved last year. Moerover, he did it consistently on 9 of these two seamers. Similarly he was able to more consistently put a greater amount of sidespin on his four seamer than he did last year. These results translate to the improved movements on both fastballs as described above. It's also worth noting that the improved control of the movement of Niese's fastballs will probably translate to Niese's accuracy with the pitch improving from last year.
Finally, Niese threw 4 change ups vs. the Pirates. Obviously this is a small sampling, but the pitch seems to have improved. Whereas before the changeup was moving in the same pattern as the 2008 fastball, the four changeups moved just like the new “sinker” being thrown by Jon Niese. Also the spin of the changeup, as seen on the graph above, has improved to be exactly like the two-seam fastball as well. This indicates that Niese probably now has a greater control over the pitch than he did before. This should make the change up more effective in the future, and we should keep an eye on this in the future. It is of course necessary to note that this is an incredibly small sample size; Niese only did throw 4 change ups in his one start this year.
This graph shows the release points of Jon Niese, and you can see two clusters of pitches. Immediately a potential problem for Niese becomes evident, his upper left release point is the area from which he throws his curveball (the blue dots) and nothing else. Niese’s fastballs and changeups come from the other release point. In essence, Niese is releasing his curveball from a 12 o’clock release point (straight up) while he’s releasing his fastballs and changeups at a 1 o’clock release point (lower and more to the right). This pattern is the same for each of Niese’s starts last year and his start against the Pirates this year.
Does this matter? I don’t know exactly, as the two release points are closer together than some that others pitchers have (see Hernandez, Orlando). If players could notice this difference in release points, or look for the higher release point, they could know whenever a curveball is coming. Naturally this would be disastrous for a pitcher who uses it as effectively as Niese does. This clearly bears further watching to see if hitters are noticing this issue as teams’ scouting reports on Niese get more detailed.
Jon Niese is a young pitcher who still has time to develop. As we’ve seen here, in 6 months he’s improved by adding or refining a second fastball variety that makes him more deadly and has improved his original fastball and his changeup. There is some concern over his release point, but overall, Niese is a pitcher who should hopefully have a shining future on the Mets if he continues to improve at this current pace.
*PitchFX is a system employed by Major League Baseball that tracks each pitch thrown in every Major League Baseball game using a series of cameras and some computer programming installed in every baseball stadium used in the Majors. You may have noticed its usage if you’ve used MLB.com’s Gamecast, which shows you the movement of each pitch and where it lands in its display. The system’s data is accessible to the public and can be used to see what pitches a pitcher is throwing, when he’s throwing them, at what speeds, etc, etc etc.