The underrated Jonathon Niese

Last week, Dave Cameron of FanGraphs set out to find potential comparisons for Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka. The profile for Tanaka is pretty interesting. The scouting reports are that he throws strikes, gets ground balls, and has a good fastball-splitter combo that gets some strikeouts. When Cameron ran his list to find guys who fit that profile, he found that Jonathon Niese looked a lot like Tanaka.

The list included guys who had a minimum 450 innings pitched, BB% of 5-9%, K% between 18-24%, and GB% between 46-54%. Obviously, Niese fits this profile, but he’s also in with some pretty good company. Here are some of the highlights with Niese in mind:

Name K% BB% HR/9 GB%
James Shields 23% 7% 0.91 47%
David Price 23% 6% 0.78 47%
Hiroki Kuroda 19% 6% 1.00 48%
Jonathon Niese 19% 7% 0.84 50%
Edwin Jackson 19% 7% 0.88 47%

There are more names on this list, however I didn’t include because they really don’t further my point. I pulled Shields, Price, and Kuroda to show the ceiling of a pitcher with this type of skillset, and as you can see they can perform quite well because those are arguably the top 10-15 pitchers in the game right now. Jackson is a closer comparison to what Niese actually does. Neither pitcher is getting as many strikeouts as the elite group, but manage to be successful by inducing a decent number of ground balls and throwing strikes.

This is what makes Niese underrated. Price one day could get more than $150 million for having a similar skill set to Niese; the only difference is that Price has better stuff and therefore strikes out more batters. The only thing that separates Niese from being in the elite group of pitchers is that he doesn’t strike out enough guys.

Niese is Tanaka’s floor, and it’s more likely that Tanaka turns out to be as good as Shields. If Tanaka is as good as Shields, then Niese is the poor man’s Tanaka. The Mets have a serious discount on Niese — who is making $5 million a year — while some other team is going to pay $20 million for Tanaka who may or may not perform better than Niese. However, a lot of scouts would have to get a lot of things wrong for Tanaka to perform only as well as Niese.

The five-year, $25 million contract to which Alderson signed Niese may be the most underrated signing of his tenure. Niese is considered a reliable starter, but he’s not an ace. He’s somewhere in between a number three or four starter. However, other teams are putting an emphasis on those types of pitchers. Ricky Nolasco just got a four-year, $49 million deal, and he’s considered a number three or four pitcher. Niese does the same things that Shields and other elite pitchers do, just not as efficiently, making him underrated.

19 comments for “The underrated Jonathon Niese

  1. Patrick Albanesius
    January 9, 2014 at 4:04 pm

    Niese breakdown. See what I did there? He’s a great fit in the 4 spot for the Mets and should outperform that contract in spades.

    • Clown Patrol
      January 9, 2014 at 5:08 pm

      Yeah, but while you think you’re oh so clever what you really did was identify yourself as a clown.

      • TexasGusCC
        January 10, 2014 at 12:06 am

        Wow, tough crowd.

  2. Chris F
    January 9, 2014 at 4:22 pm

    He’s got a great club friendly contract to be sure. However any comparison with Davis Price is seriously misguided. Like you said, he’s most likely a 4 guy in a decent rotation. In the present environment, that certainly paid big bucks on this year’s highly over-bloated contracts. In reality he’s a run of the mill innings eater that every staff needs a couple of.

    • January 9, 2014 at 5:51 pm

      Sid Fernandez was the fourth starter on the 1986 Mets and I don’t think any of us would complain if Niese put up a year like Fernandez did in ’86.

      You want a pitcher who’s going to give you consistent starts, innings and quality. Niese is going to do all of those things. He’s made 110 starts the past four years which may not sound impressive on the surface but if you think there are 100 guys in MLB who can make that claim, well, you’d be mistaken, as there are fewer than 50.

      I’m glad that Niese is in our rotation and I feel like he gives us a good chance to win when he’s that day’s starting pitcher.

      • Chris F
        January 9, 2014 at 6:25 pm

        Absolutely Brian. I agree on all fronts. Any 4 guy that consistently gives us a 50/50 chance to win and hovers up piles of innings is alright by me. My point was simply that as great of a deal Niese is, any comparison with Price is simply cherry picking data because Niese is nowhere near Price.

        • January 9, 2014 at 10:48 pm

          But I think you’re misrepresenting what Spencer is saying. Nowhere does he say Niese is as good as Price. He merely said they had similar skill sets. He explicitly said that Price had better stuff.

          While Spencer didn’t specifically address this, I find it interesting to see how close they are in xFIP. Price has a lifetime 3.53 xFIP while Niese’s career mark is at 3.68

          Price has had two outstanding years. But what he did in 2009, 2011 and 2013 is indistinguishable from Niese. Let’s look at two lines:

          Player A: 190.1 IP, 13-9, 3.40 ERA, 7.33 K/9, 48.3 GB%
          Player B: 186.2 IP, 10-8, 3.33 ERA, 7.28 K/9, 44.9 GB%

          Player A: 143.0 IP, 8-8, 3.71 ERA, 6.69 K/9, 51.5 GB%
          Player B: 128.1 IP, 10-7, 4.42 ERA, 7.15 K/9 41.5 GB%

          The top set is 2012 Niese versus 2013 Price while the bottom set is 2013 Niese versus 2009 Price. You could put 2009 and 2001 and 2013 numbers for Price on Niese’s baseball card and they would look right at home.

          Of course, Price was better in 2010 and 2012 than Niese has ever been. No one is suggesting otherwise.

          • TexasGusCC
            January 10, 2014 at 12:09 am

            Don’t lose track of what teams the two are facing, but it speaks well for Niese.

          • Chris F
            January 10, 2014 at 1:04 pm

            Ok, Ill let you guys pick Niese over Price. This is where the cherry picking of metrics leaves reality in my eye. I am certain that given all other things being equal 30 out of 30 GMs would say Price is a far superior pitcher regardless of some small picture of splits like those presented.

            • January 10, 2014 at 2:47 pm

              I don’t get it. No one is saying anything remotely like that they would prefer Niese over Price. Please stop acting like that’s what’s being discussed by the author (or me).

  3. Jerry Grote
    January 9, 2014 at 7:33 pm

    The numbers look close, but …

    Niese strikes out 20% fewer batters than Price or Shields. He walks 16% more than Price/Kuroda.

    Ability is not a linear path. I’ve never really looked but my guess? Maybe 700 players can put up 1 WAR or better; maybe 300 hundred can get to 2; maybe 100 can get to 3; maybe 40 can get 4; maybe a two dozen get to 5; only a dozen produce more than 6. What? Maybe its just Trout and Cabrera at 10.

    Niese is possibly between that 2 and 3 WAR guy. Somewhere near a top 200 ball player. To bring up guys that land in the top two dozen … that’s just silly.

    • Chris F
      January 9, 2014 at 8:01 pm

      Niese has a 6yr cumulative WAR of 4.6, whereas Price’s 6 yr WAR total is 18.6. Not even close.

      • Joe Vasile
        January 9, 2014 at 9:22 pm

        That’s not a fair comparison, because Niese pitched 8 games in 2008 and 2009 combined, while Price had 24. Price has pitched 152 career games (147 starts) and been worth 18.8 WAR. Niese has 119 (118 starts) and has been worth 8.4 WAR (using Fangraphs, from looking at your totals, I’m assuming you used b-ref). Still, it’s not comparable, Price has been better.

        Looking at their last 4 seasons, Price has been worth 17.4 in 123 games, Niese – 7.9 in 111. It’s pretty much the same gap of ~10 wins, but considering the way that Niese struggled with his shoulder injury early last year, and how well he pitched after he came back, that gap might not be 2.5 wins bigger (which represents the 2.5 wins/year that Price has been better) come this time next year.

        I see no reason Niese cant be a 3 win pitcher next year, as I said in a comment below (by B-Ref he was worth 3.4 WAR in 2012, and he was worth 2.4 fWAR and 2.6 WARP in 2011 for his career highs in all 3 measurements).

        • Chris F
          January 9, 2014 at 10:22 pm

          I did look at BR Joe. Yes, you can parse out all the value by IP etc, but no one needs any advanced metrics to see that Price is 100x the pitcher of Niese. As Jerry Grote notes, the war values are in no way linear. Price is a CY award winning ace who is one of the best pitchers in the game. Niese is not.

          While I understand that Niese has 3 WAR potential, why would we choose to predict that? Much like with Ike, he has had one strong season in four. Over the past 4 years he has averaged ~170 innings with an average WAR of 1.2. Isn’t it much more likely that he posts about a 1 WAR based on what we see? I continually see a lot of optimism among Mets fans that seems to almost always predicts a players ceiling, only to find disappointment when reality sets in.

          In another article I read here today, I read that the Mets are 2 moves (1B and SS) from a wild card, without considering how the Mets leap over the Nats and Braves. Is it likely the NL east has 3 teams in the playoffs? Anyways, I love the Mets and have done so all my life; I want them to win in the worst way imaginable. But I also think it is in our best interest to be as conservative with our predictions as possible. Today we are in 1st place. I even imagine after opening day we might just be. But this is going to be a long season unless all the stars imaginable line up, failure besets our competition, and the injury bug goes elsewhere.

        • Jerry Grote
          January 10, 2014 at 2:39 pm

          what is unfair, is to use Niese in a comparison to David Price. They aren’t in the same sentence.

          If you want to compare Niese to someone, then look at Matt Garza … oddly enough, available in free agency right now. He looked remarkably like Niese through age 26, and Garza from age 27-29 basically was a 2 WAR kind of guy. Would anyone here be surprised by this production over the next three years? 3.62 ERA, 110 ERA+, average 150 IP and 24 starts per year, and a healthy 3 K/BB ratio? Matt Garza, 2011-2013.

          Where do I remember that name Garza? Oh yeah. The teams that owned him got one of the top SS prospects in baseball, and later on one of the best hitting prospects in baseball.

  4. Joe Vasile
    January 9, 2014 at 9:08 pm

    Pretty good stuff, Spencer.

    Like others, I’m a little wary of the Price comparison, but a lefty version of Edwin Jackson is not too shabby. I think Niese is closer to the better group if he can return to his 2012 form. Last year he struggled with the shoulder injury and pitched poorly early on, but when he came back he was much better.

    If he can build on that, no reason to think he can’t be a 3 win pitcher this year.

  5. Julian McCarthy
    January 10, 2014 at 6:39 am

    In my humble opinion, Niese has always been underrated. But maybe that’s the way it should be. If teams realize that this guy is actually very talented, then they will eventually adapt and he wouldn’t be as good. In the Mets future rotation; Harvey, Wheeler, Syndergaard, Niese, Gee/anyone; Niese can be our deadly secret weapon.

  6. Eraff
    January 10, 2014 at 2:23 pm

    Price “has better stuff and therefore strikes out more batters…”

    What exactly was “the similar skill set” involved with this statistical “cull”? Tom Seaver versus Dylan Gee…. “Seaver had better stuff and therefore struck out more batters”….. otherwise, Similar Skills?

    Niese is a “Kind Of” LH Ervin Santana—– Niese and Ervin do not belong in a statistical comp to David Price. They’re nice major league pitchers— he’s a Great Pitcher.

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