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:
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.