With Johan Santana starting the season on the disabled list, the Mets were left without an ace. By default, Mike Pelfrey assumed the label as the team’s top starter. But Pelfrey has been the weakest pitcher on the staff so far. Now with two-thirds of the season already complete, we are still wondering who the best pitcher on the staff is.

I think there are two reasonable answers to this question: Dillon Gee and Jonathon Niese. Both pitchers have 10 wins but Gee has the best winning percentage (.769) and the lowest ERA (3.69). Given those two factors, it would seem to be a big uphill battle to claim Niese as the Mets’ best pitcher. However, Niese leads the staff with a 2.4 fWAR while Gee is fourth among the club’s starters with a 0.8 fWAR.

In case you were wondering, fWAR uses FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) and innings as the primary inputs. FIP credits/debits the pitcher with things that he controls – strikeouts, walks and home runs – to determine how well he has pitched. After the calculation with those three numbers is done, a constant (typically 3.20) is added to arrive at an ERA-like number.

Niese does better in fWAR than Gee because he holds the edge in FIP, 3.29 to 4.11 so far this season. Also adding to Niese’s edge is that he has 134.2 IP compared to 107.1 for Gee.

You may think that it is unfair to use FIP instead of ERA, since the latter records what actually happened. However, we are trying to determine who is the Mets’ best pitcher, not who is the team’s luckiest hurler. Studies show that FIP does a better job of predicting the following year’s ERA than ERA does. For example, if a pitcher has a 2.18 ERA and a 4.20 FIP in Year 1, his ERA is much more likely to be in the 4.20-range in Year 2.

Those numbers were what Gee posted in his 33 innings with the Mets in 2010. And we see that Gee’s current ERA is 3.69 or much closer to his FIP (0.51 away) last year than his ERA (1.51 away).

Let’s look at some other metrics and see how Gee and Niese rate:

K/BB BABIP LOB% GB/FB HR/FB O-Swing% F-Strike% SwStr%
Gee 1.63 .241 71.0 1.33 7.1 31.5 55.0 9.3
Niese 2.97 .314 68.2 1.86 9.9 33.1 59.1 8.1

For several of these categories, we know that most MLB-quality pitchers will produce consistent rates in the long term. We know that most pitchers will record a BABIP around .300, a LOB% around 70 percent and a HR/FB rate around 10 percent. Whenever a pitcher records numbers noticeably different than these benchmarks, we refer to it as “luck,” which can be either good or bad depending upon the direction.

Gee’s .241 BABIP is good “luck” while Niese’s .314 may be slightly bad “luck.” Both pitchers are right about where you would expect them to be in LOB%, although Gee is slightly better and Niese slightly worse. And in HR rate, Niese is right where we would expect him to be while Gee is again having good “luck.”

Now let’s look at the categories where more skill is involved. A K/BB ratio over 2.5 is good while one below 2.0 is poor. This year among 109 pitchers with enough innings to qualify for the FanGraphs leaderboards, 56 of them had a K/BB ratio of 2.5 or greater while 26 had a ratio below 2.0 in the category. Niese’s 2.97 ranks 30th while Gee’s 1.63 would tie for 99th if he had enough innings to qualify for the leaders page.

Typically, we view ground balls as favorable to fly balls because grounders almost never result in home runs. Niese ranks 12th in GB/FB rate while Gee would place a very respectable 52nd if he had enough innings pitched.

Both pitcher are very good at getting batters to chase pitches outside of the strike zone, but Niese is better here, too. The only skill category where Gee wins out is with swinging strikes, where his changeup has been a very effective weapon.

Gee averages under 90 mph with his fastball, but it’s been a very effective pitch for him. He throws both his changeup and curve a significant amount of the time (27.1 and 10.6 percent, respectively) and also mixes in a cutter and slider.

Niese broke through in 2009 when he added a cutter to his fastball-curve repertoire. The cutter has not been a successful pitch for Niese here in 2011 but both his fastball and curve are seeing much better results than a season ago.

The bottom line is that Gee has pitched great this year and given the pitching staff a much-needed shot in the arm. Few doubted that Gee would pitch meaningful innings for the 2011 Mets, but he was called into service earlier than expected due to the season-ending injury to Chris Young and has delivered better results than many anticipated.

But by most objective measures, Niese has been the better pitcher. And as the season goes on, Niese is hitting his stride while Gee is faltering. In his last 15 games, Niese is 8-4 with a 3.34 ERA. In Gee’s last 6 games, he is 3-3 with a 5.01 ERA.

As Mets fans, we hope that Niese’s stretch is indicative of what we can expect the final two months of the season while Gee’s stretch is merely a slump. Niese’s 3.34 ERA over his last 15 games almost perfectly matches his season-long 3.29 FIP. That may not be what jumps to mind when you hear the term “ace” but it’s the best mark among the starters for the 2011 Mets.

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