The other day I noticed my kid was reading this book that I recognized from when I was around his age. Jonathan Livingston Seagull, by Richard Bach. The short novel about the transcendent ascension of a seagull who refused to be confined by the boundaries of his own defining limitations. He flew higher, faster, until he became a kind of zen master of flight and was even able to teleport if I recall. Like most everything, it got me thinking about the Mets and a guy on the team named Jonathon. Jonathon Niese.
Of all the players I ran into over the weekend Niese somehow stood out. He carries himself well, he’s bigger than I thought (actually they’re all bigger than you think – they’re like on a different scale), he’s soft spoken and unassuming and just seems like a really nice guy.
Jonathon Niese was born on October 27th 1986, the day the Mets won their last World Series. Talk about cosmic coincidences. He was picked 209th overall in the 2005 draft, and he spent time at all three levels of the Mets minor league system where his numbers were good but not great. His best year was probably his 2008 season in Binghampton when in 22 games he had a 3.04 ERA. The season before in St. Lucie he’d gone 11-7 with a 4.19 ERA. At the age of 22 while at AAA Buffalo in the midst of a stretch where he’d pitched to a 3.82 ERA over 16 games he got the call.
My first impression of him was that he was ok, nothing special. He gave up a homerun to his first batter, Rickie Weeks, and ended up surrendering three runs in three innings. Not so good, I thought. Maybe a back end number 4 type guy at best. Then in his next start Jonathan Seagu … er, Niese, surprised me, pitching 8 shutout innings to beat the Braves 5-0. What I noticed was the sweet arcing trajectory of his beautiful southpaw curveball. A true hammer. Jonathon had defied my initial impression with that performance.
Niese got called up again in 2009 after Oliver Perez got hurt. He pitched to a 4.21 ERA that year making only 5 starts before he suffered a complete tear of his hamstring and had to miss the rest of the season. Niese went 10-9 in 2010 with a 4.20 ERA and 11–11 in 2011 with a 4.40 ERA and it was looking like my initial assessment was maybe not so far from the truth, middle to back end of the rotation kind of guy. But like Jonathan Seagull’s doubters (a seagull cannot fly like a hawk!) I was focusing too much on his limitations …
Niese had rhinoplasty after the 2011 season at the urging of ex-teammate Carlos Beltran. I knew what this was. Nasal deformity can result from skeletal hypoplasia or skeletal asymmetry and can cause an assortment of breathing problems up to and including sleep apnea. The problem can also affect nasal resonance (hyponasality), which can distort speech. I found it a little odd that a number of early stories found humor in Niese’s “nose job.” When you look at some older pictures of Niese, his nose deviated severely to his right. Functional rhinoplasty is actually a vital procedure for those who suffer from obstructed and malaligned nasal passages.
The surgery likely addressed some lingering asymmetry that was obstructing his airway. I’d learned about this stuff during a graduate practicum at the University of Minnesota’s Craniofacial Clinic (one of the top institutions of it’s kind in the nation). I knew that if the breathing was repaired it could potentially make a big difference in his O2 intake as an athlete, not to mention the far more significant effects of improved sleep (if apnea was an issue). Sure enough he had the best season of his career, going 13-9 with a 3.40 ERA. Jonathon was on the move again, defying expectations, ascending.
Jonathon pitched a hell of a gutsy game the other night. With brutal near blizzard conditions at game time the Mets came out and pounded Vance Worley with 5 quick runs in the first. Worley’s command was off, his pitches all appeared to be some version of a straight fastball, he had nothing. The Minnesota weather was brutal, I couldn’t imagine trying to grip a baseball in this stuff when you could barely feel your hands.
I had my fingers crossed when Niese came out and sure enough he ran into some trouble with a walk and a hit. Niese appeared to be having trouble locating his signature cutter. Buck went out and chatted with him and Niese seemed to settle down after that, sans the cutter. He relied mostly on his fastball and change with a few breaking balls thrown in for good measure. In the end, Niese gutted out 5 innings for the win with 4 earned runs, 4 walks and a strikeout, which, under the circumstances was nothing short of amazing. This quiet kid from Lima, Ohio is something else I thought. Pitching like a true ace, Jon Niese has become resilient, able to do what he has to to win even when his stuff isn’t there and the conditions are stacked against him.
On Saturday, the morning after Niese’s start, as the groundskeepers were doing their thing and hosing down the infield, Niese was the first guy out of the Met clubhouse doing laps. He was working on that conditioning that had made all the difference for him in 2012.
This kid has gone from the ninth pick of the 7th round of the draft, from his average days in the minors, from an uninspiring start to his major league career, to what he is now, which is one of the best starters in the league with a true knee-buckling curveball that has to be one of the toughest breaking pitches in the game.
I wouldn’t put anything past this guy. Like Jonathan Seagull, he is on a stratospheric trajectory. There’s no ceiling in sight for Mr. Niese, and I don’t think he’s set any limitations on where he may end up, so I certainly won’t.