Niese Wants to Get Back on Track

Jonathon Niese, Binghamton's 21-year-old left-hander, streaked to a hot start in 2008 but has since cooled due to inconsistency. As he battles through his first season in Double-A, he is learning about what it takes to become a more mature pitcher while simultaneously improving elements of his repertoire.

[Photo by Kate Kredo]

After an offseason trade for Johan Santana, left-hander Jonathon Niese was left as the top starting pitching prospect in the Mets' system by default. Yet he made good on the designation in his first five starts for the Double-A Binghamton Mets this season: he allowed just two earned runs and struck out 22 in 25 1/3 innings.

But something unbeknownst to the 21-year-old Niese threw him off his routine in his last four starts, in which he allowed a total of 18 earned runs in 17 2/3 innings. His ERA has climbed to 4.19 and his record fallen to 2-4, with three of those losses coming in the four starts. He managed to escape his most recent and worst performance, a three-inning, six-run outing against visiting New Britain on May 15, with a no-decision.

With a low-90s fastball, the kind of dominant curveball that's rare for southpaws and a work-in-progress changeup, the talent of the 6-foot-4 lefthander isn't in question.

"From the left side, you don't really see a big league curveball like that from lefties," says B-Mets catcher Rafael Arroyo. "He can be an ace of the staff in the big leagues."

Some of Niese's recent struggles, it's rightly pointed out, can be attributed to the natural course of things for a young player.

"He's a human being, he's a young kid," says B-Mets manager Mako Oliveras. "Sometimes people tend to forget that these kids struggle, it's a part of life. Sometimes that's the best way to learn, when things are not going your way, you find out how to deal with it."

What Niese can control, and what he needs to develop most now isn't a particular pitch, is what Oliveras calls "the sixth tool" for position players: a consistent, proper approach to every outing.

"My mental aspect of the game, it kind of changed where I was more worried about the outcome than the task at hand," Niese says. "I just lost focus and I never made the adjustment when I needed to. It's one of those things where if you're not 100 percent mentally ready for a game, you're not going to succeed at all."

Niese lives off being able to establish his fastball early in the count and put hitters away with his curve and change.

"He's a guy who is aggressive, and for any guy who is aggressive, if you don't have a good fastball going that day, you kind of let your emotions get involved," says B-Mets pitching coach Ricky Bones.

Falling behind in the count doomed Niese against New Britain, when he struck out none and allowed eight hits, taking an early exit with the B-Mets behind 6-4.

But when Niese talks about his mental approach, he's not just talking about how he reacts to adversity when he reaches the mound at game time; it starts hours beforehand.

"On gameday I usually just put on the headphones, just completely block everything out and focus on the game," Niese says. "I haven't been doing that lately and I really don't know why."

It's a routine Niese says he had before games in major league camp this spring, when he impressed with a 3.12 ERA in 8 2/3 innings over three appearances.

Niese's spring served to improve his already high stock, which rose to prominence at the end of last season with High-A St. Lucie. Niese, the Mets' seventh round pick in the 2005 draft after back-to-back Ohio High School Baseball Player of the Year awards, came on strong in his last eight starts of 2007. He went 4-1 with a 2.18 ERA in that span, striking out 42 and walking just nine in 45 innings pitched.

An improved diet and, in his second full season of pro ball, an understanding of how to pace himself is what Niese credits his strong finish to. To get back on track this season, however, Niese getting knowledge from an outside source.

On May 17, he walked past his manager's office a couple hours before game time and was asked in. Oliveras asked his pitcher how his reading was coming with The Mental ABC's of Pitching, among others.

"Mental Toughness, The Mental ABC's of Pitching, Sandy Koufax's book; I have a whole stack of books at home," he says. "A lot of great knowledge in there, it's unbelievable."

There's little Niese needs to improve on the physical side of things but his changeup, which he can throw with a two-seam or four-seam grip, is his most inconsistent pitch.

"The changeup's coming along pretty good," says Bones. "The tendency with young guys is that they get away with a fastball and curveball, and when they pitch at this level they need to develop a third pitch."

"His changeup's improved a lot over the last few years," says Arroyo, who caught Niese in St. Lucie last season as well. "But when his curveball's on he's virtually unhittable; as a hitter, with those two pitches, either way it's tough."

He worked on the changeup in spring training, listening to Pedro Martinez and Johan Santana, whose changeup Niese calls "unbelievable, it's the best changeup in the game." Billy Wagner, not known for his off-speed pitches but a more-than-successful lefty at the big league level, also served as a tutor.

If the changeup continues to come along, Niese could get his shot to move beyond Binghamton. Mets manager Willie Randolph has already publicly stated that he wouldn't be afraid to call up the southpaw if injuries or other circumstances necessitated it.

"If [the big league team] ever needs me, of course I'll be ready," he says.


Amazin Clubhouse Top Stories

\r\n \r\n\r\n[Photo by Kate Kredo]
\r\n
\r\nAfter an offseason trade for Johan Santana, left-hander Jonathon Niese was left as the top starting pitching prospect in the Mets' system by default. Yet he made good on the designation in his first five starts for the Double-A Binghamton Mets this season: he allowed just two earned runs and struck out 22 in 25 1/3 innings.
\r\n
\r\nBut something unbeknownst to the 21-year-old Niese threw him off his routine in his last four starts, in which he allowed a total of 18 earned runs in 17 2/3 innings. His ERA has climbed to 4.19 and his record fallen to 2-4, with three of those losses coming in the four starts. He managed to escape his most recent and worst performance, a three-inning, six-run outing against visiting New Britain on May 15, with a no-decision.
\r\n
\r\nWith a low-90s fastball, the kind of dominant curveball that's rare for southpaws and a work-in-progress changeup, the talent of the 6-foot-4 lefthander isn't in question.
\r\n
\r\n\"From the left side, you don't really see a big league curveball like that from lefties,\" says B-Mets catcher Rafael Arroyo. \"He can be an ace of the staff in the big leagues.\"
\r\n
\r\nSome of Niese's recent struggles, it's rightly pointed out, can be attributed to the natural course of things for a young player.
\r\n
\r\n\"He's a human being, he's a young kid,\" says B-Mets manager Mako Oliveras. \"Sometimes people tend to forget that these kids struggle, it's a part of life. Sometimes that's the best way to learn, when things are not going your way, you find out how to deal with it.\"
\r\n
\r\nWhat Niese can control, and what he needs to develop most now isn't a particular pitch, is what Oliveras calls \"the sixth tool\" for position players: a consistent, proper approach to every outing.
\r\n
\r\n\"My mental aspect of the game, it kind of changed where I was more worried about the outcome than the task at hand,\" Niese says. \"I just lost focus and I never made the adjustment when I needed to. It's one of those things where if you're not 100 percent mentally ready for a game, you're not going to succeed at all.\"
\r\n
\r\nNiese lives off being able to establish his fastball early in the count and put hitters away with his curve and change.
\r\n
\r\n\"He's a guy who is aggressive, and for any guy who is aggressive, if you don't have a good fastball going that day, you kind of let your emotions get involved,\" says B-Mets pitching coach Ricky Bones.
\r\n
\r\nFalling behind in the count doomed Niese against New Britain, when he struck out none and allowed eight hits, taking an early exit with the B-Mets behind 6-4.
\r\n
\r\nBut when Niese talks about his mental approach, he's not just talking about how he reacts to adversity when he reaches the mound at game time; it starts hours beforehand.
\r\n
\r\n\"On gameday I usually just put on the headphones, just completely block everything out and focus on the game,\" Niese says. \"I haven't been doing that lately and I really don't know why.\"
\r\n
\r\nIt's a routine Niese says he had before games in major league camp this spring, when he impressed with a 3.12 ERA in 8 2/3 innings over three appearances.
\r\n
\r\nNiese's spring served to improve his already high stock, which rose to prominence at the end of last season with High-A St. Lucie. Niese, the Mets' seventh round pick in the 2005 draft after back-to-back Ohio High School Baseball Player of the Year awards, came on strong in his last eight starts of 2007. He went 4-1 with a 2.18 ERA in that span, striking out 42 and walking just nine in 45 innings pitched.
\r\n
\r\nAn improved diet and, in his second full season of pro ball, an understanding of how to pace himself is what Niese credits his strong finish to. To get back on track this season, however, Niese getting knowledge from an outside source.
\r\n
\r\nOn May 17, he walked past his manager's office a couple hours before game time and was asked in. Oliveras asked his pitcher how his reading was coming with The Mental ABC's of Pitching, among others.
\r\n
\r\n\"Mental Toughness, The Mental ABC's of Pitching, Sandy Koufax's book; I have a whole stack of books at home,\" he says. \"A lot of great knowledge in there, it's unbelievable.\"
\r\n
\r\nThere's little Niese needs to improve on the physical side of things but his changeup, which he can throw with a two-seam or four-seam grip, is his most inconsistent pitch.
\r\n
\r\n\"The changeup's coming along pretty good,\" says Bones. \"The tendency with young guys is that they get away with a fastball and curveball, and when they pitch at this level they need to develop a third pitch.\"
\r\n
\r\n\"His changeup's improved a lot over the last few years,\" says Arroyo, who caught Niese in St. Lucie last season as well. \"But when his curveball's on he's virtually unhittable; as a hitter, with those two pitches, either way it's tough.\"
\r\n
\r\nHe worked on the changeup in spring training, listening to Pedro Martinez and Johan Santana, whose changeup Niese calls \"unbelievable, it's the best changeup in the game.\" Billy Wagner, not known for his off-speed pitches but a more-than-successful lefty at the big league level, also served as a tutor.
\r\n
\r\nIf the changeup continues to come along, Niese could get his shot to move beyond Binghamton. Mets manager Willie Randolph has already publicly stated that he wouldn't be afraid to call up the southpaw if injuries or other circumstances necessitated it.
\r\n
\r\n\"If [the big league team] ever needs me, of course I'll be ready,\" he says.
\r\n
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