Jonathon Niese didn’t win more than 11 games, pitch more than 175 innings or post an ERA below 4 in either of his first two full major league seasons.
Yet the Mets saw it as worthwhile to give him a five-year contract, one that buys out all of his arbitration years, plus a year of free agency.
Niese's Numbers Defied Odds
Since 1962: 316 seasons of...
What do the Mets like about Niese that would inspire this sort of move?
In short, it comes down to the three stats over which Niese had the most control -- his strikeout rate (7.9 per nine innings), walk rate (2.5 per nine innings), and home run rate (0.8 per nine innings).
In the sabermetric community, those stats combine to form a statistic known as Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP). And the thinking is that if you have a good FIP, you’re a pretty good pitcher.
Last season, there were 25 major league pitchers who pitched at least 150 innings, struck out at least seven hitters per nine innings, walked fewer than three per nine, and allowed fewer than one home run per nine innings. Those are your kings of FIP.
If you went through that list, you’d see a lot of pitchers who would be on your no-doubter ace list. That’s the guys like Clayton Kershaw, Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee.
The second-tier guys are very good pitchers too -- the likes of Jaime Garcia, Matt Garza, and Shaun Marcum.
Of those 25, the pitcher who posted the second-worst ERA was Michael Pineda’s 3.74.
The worst belonged to Niese. His was the distant outlier of the group, with a 4.40 ERA.
That is an extraordinarily unusual ERA for a pitcher who puts up the sort of peripheral numbers that Niese did. Earlier this spring we speculated why that might be, in this piece about how Niese yielded an abundance of soft hits.
A check of Baseball-Reference.com showed that in the 50 years of the Mets existence, there have been 316 instances of a pitcher putting up that trio of numbers mentioned above.
Only twice in that span did one of those pitchers have a worse ERA than Niese’s 4.40. Chris Bosio had a 5.24 ERA for the 1987 Brewers and Jason Hammel had a 4.81 ERA for the 2010 Rockies.
Pick a pitcher at random from that list of 316 and there’s about a 50-50 chance you’ll hit one with a sub-3 ERA. Better than 80 percent of the pitchers on that list had ERAs of 3.50 or lower.
There were a total of 153 pitchers who combined for those 316 seasons. Of those, 63 of them (about 40 percent) were able to replicate that strikeout, walk, and home run rate combo at least one more time.
In signing Niese to this deal, the Mets are playing the odds that if Niese continues to develop, he’ll be one of them, and by contract’s end he’ll fit the profile of some of the best pitchers on this list.