11:22 am Aug. 31, 2012
It didn't much matter if Jonathon Niese won or lost Thursday, in a 3-2 defeat by the Philadelphia Phillies. All top brass wishes aside, how the Mets finish in 2012 is largely irrelevant to future pursuits.
But it was a strong performance by Niese in defeat—and with the flu, no less—that provided further reassurance that the one significant flaw in Niese's performance as a major leaguer, his late-season results, may be behind him at last.
Niese, after all, is the one Met signed to a long-term contract, with four years left to run on the deal he signed this spring. The signing was made with the idea that Niese would be an effective, cost-controlled asset in the rotation, and given his results to date, the signing made sense.
But a pitcher who is only effective for the first two thirds of the season is a problem when a team contends, let alone once a team makes the playoffs. So Niese's struggles late in 2010 and 2011 were of concern.
In 2010, Niese had a 3.33 E.R.A. through August 21. Over his final seven starts, he pitched to a 7.57 E.R.A., to finish the season at a more pedestrian 4.20. In 2011, he had an E.R.A. of 3.76 on July 21. He managed a 6.82 E.R.A. over his next six starts before the Mets shut him down at the end of August.
What was strange about both of these periods of struggle was that his strikeout rate remained strong, his walk rate actually improved. Instead, he was simply getting hit hard, with batter posting an O.P.S. of over 1.000 in his final seven 2010 starts and .920 in his final six 2011 starts.
The sample sizes were small enough that the results may not have meant much; had he experienced that period in May, it probably would have been chalked up to a normal dip within player performance.
Still, it has to be a relief for the Mets to see Niese complete August 2012 in fine shape. In fact, August was his second-best month this season, with a 2.61 E.R.A., solid peripherals, and a .662 O.P.S. allowed to hitters in six starts.
Niese could still falter in September, but what he's doing now is encouraging. For a team with exactly one long-term contract, that would be the best possible news about the future; better, even, than finishing in third place.