Jon Niese has been a study in survival this year. The New York Mets‘ left-hander has bounced back from a series of shoulder injuries and has been the team’s most reliable starter. But over his last six starts or so, his fastball velocity has dropped and his effectiveness has waned. This raises the question: Is Niese’s shoulder still injured, and if so, how injured is it?
Actually, Niese’s remarkable avoidance of extended time on the disabled list started last year. He was diagnosed with a partially torn rotator cuff. Oftentimes an injury like that means surgery, rehab and a lost season. Instead, Niese rehabbed the injury, came back from a relatively short DL stint and started a total of 24 games for New York, going 8-8 with a 3.71 ERA.
This year, he experienced shoulder pain in Spring Training. It was found that the 27-year-old had a weak cluster of scapula muscles. Once again, all it took was was some rehab, and Niese was back on the mound in April in time for the regular season. And Niese was outstanding.
Through June 12, he had a 2.54 ERA and was in the All-Star conversation despite his deceiving 2-4 win-loss record. He was also durable, as he lasted seven innings or more six times. But since June 17, he’s pitched to a 5.22 ERA and opposing hitters are attacking him to the tune of an .858 OPS. His velocity, usually in the 90-92 MPH range, now comes in between 86-88. Because of that, he sometimes cannot overcome mistakes up in the strike zone, as evidenced by his performance on Saturday night. Yes, he only gave up three runs and better defense would have helped him out, but he only lasted five innings. Niese was upset he was removed, but with his pitch count the way it was, he wouldn’t have lasted much longer anyway.
So, is his shoulder still a problem? He was hit by a come-backer in his July 4 start against the Texas Rangers. Naturally, it hit him squarely in the left shoulder. Terry Collins removed him from the game and then the Mets put him on the disabled list, much to Niese’s disapproval. New York used the occasion of his injury to give him a few extra days of rest in advance of the All-Star Break out of concern for his diminished velocity.
He’s allowed seven earned runs on 16 hits in 11 innings during his first two starts back from the DL. Ask him about his shoulder, and he’ll bite your head off. He’s a competitor. He doesn’t want to come out of ballgames, miss any starts or make any excuses. At his age, it’s not like he’s declining; he’s just entering his prime. One can only speculate, but it stands to reason that something’s wrong with his left arm. Hopefully not. And if there is, hopefully it doesn’t get any worse. Niese is vital to the Mets’ starting rotation.