What made Jon Niese ace-like at 2012's end

What was the difference between the Jonathon Niese that was good for about three-quarters of last season and the one who was great in his last eight starts and put him on track to start on Opening Day?

Let’s look at three of the primary reasons.

Curveball: From good to great

“His pitches are very quality. I like his fastball and the way he locates it and the nice slow curveball I think he’s going to go through outings (this season) where he pitches above-average and gets bad results. He’s going to have a huge mental battle of (thinking about) how his stats should have been better and he has to fight through that.”

-- ESPN's Orel Hershiser on Jonathon Niese

Beginning with a start on Sunday Night Baseball against the Braves on August 12, Niese had an eight-start stretch in which he got 45 outs with his curve and yielded only eight hits/walks with the pitch.

Jonathon Niese in 2012

Niese went from usually getting three outs for every baserunner he allowed with the pitch to getting five outs per baserunner granted.

He did, for six weeks, what Nationals 20-game winner Gio Gonzalez did with his curveball all season.

Greater effectiveness with runners on base

The multi-run home run caused a lot of trouble for Niese through much of 2012. He allowed nine multi-run homers in his first 22 starts, which in early August was tied for third-most in the NL. Not surprisingly, the Mets went 0-7 in the seven games in which he yielded such a homer.

Jonathon Niese With Men on Base
2012 Season

Niese did not allow a multi-run home run in his last eight starts of 2012 and the chart on the right shows his difference in effectiveness.

Perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, this time period also corresponds with one in which Niese was more aggressive in backing right-handed hitters (who had eight of the nine multi-run homers) off the plate.

Niese upped his rate of pitching to the inner-third (or further inside) with men on base from 38 percent (in his first 22 starts) to 49 percent against right-handed hitters.

Working the lower half

There is a visible shift in Niese’s pitch location for his fastball and cutter for the two time segments we’ve referred to in this story.

Whether trying to or not, Niese increased the rate of fastballs and cutters to the lower-half by eight percentage points (from 49 to 57 percent) or what amounted to two to three more per start than he’d been throwing.

The results got considerably better too. Niese was getting misses on about one of every nine swings against those pitches through much of the season, but he upped that rate to one of every six in the last eight starts.

And when those pitches were hit, the damage was less, a slugging percentage that dipped from .497 to .371.

And here we are

There is a contrast at work here -- that which Niese was last season (and been throughout much of his career) versus that which Niese was for the last 50 days or so of the season.

Which Niese will we see in 2013? We'll let manager Terry Collins have the last word.

"He’s really gotten better," Collins said when it was announced Niese would pitch Opening Day. "He’s growing up. To me, he deserves that opportunity this year. He’s reached that point where I think you’ll look up hopefully at the end of the year and this guy could be one of the top pitchers in the game."