The Mets have been watching their financial statements carefully lately, but they're not so destitute that they need to let every promising player walk away or be traded. Jon Niese is the most recent proof of that, as New York inked him to a five-year, $25 million deal that, with options, can be worth as much as $52 million. He'll be in New York at least one year longer than he would have been had the sides dealt with arbitration, and with the two options, up to three of Niese's free agency years could be bought out by the Mets.
Maybe you aren't familiar with Jon Niese. You would be forgiven, as his career record doesn't stand out all that much. He was a top 100 prospect just once, before the 2009 season when Baseball America ranked him 77. Kevin Goldstein didn't include him in his own top 100 that year, and neither did Keith Law. Baseball America recognized there were problems, but liked the potential of the lefty:
He's figured out how to throw his changeup with the same arm speed he uses for his fastball, and it has similar sink and tailing action. While he has improved his conditioning, Niese remains inconsistent in terms of maintaining his velocity. He's still learning to pitch inside with his fastball and remain aggressive with his changeup... He's probably still two years away from making an impact in New York's rotation.
The southpaw pitched well, especially for his age, at Triple-A in 2009, and the Mets bumped him to the majors to throw 25 innings and close the door on his minor-league career. Niese ended up with the Mets full-time a year prior to Baseball America's prediction, and while he didn't make an impact, he was productive for most of the season. In 2010, he threw 173 innings, striking out 7.7 per nine with 2.4 times more punch outs than walks.
The year should have gone better for him, though, but his final month was a mess. Through his first 148 innings, Niese owned a 3.70 ERA, gave up one homer per nine, and owned a 2.6 K/BB. His final 25 frames included struggles with his control and command: While he actually raised his strikeout rate slightly, he also issued five free passes per nine, gave up 36 hits, 26 runs (20 earned) and four homers.
The walk rates hammer home that this wasn't just a case of bad luck. Niese admitted he was mentally fatigued at the end of the year, but he might have also been physically fatigued. It wouldn't be a surprising fact when you consider that Baseball America took the time to mention he needed to work on his conditioning and velocity inconsistencies, and that he hadn't had an opportunity to build up a season's worth of stamina thanks to the hamstring surgery that curtailed his 2009.
His September velocity average was the same as in the rest of the season; his cutter even had more movement and velocity on it. (Data courtesy Texas Leaguers.) His cutter and curve were put into play far more often, though, and those groundballs found more holes than they had before (groundout rate dropped from 21 to 15 percent). Was it a pitch-sequencing issue? Did Niese lose his ability to formulate a strategy and focus on the mound, as he claimed? The loftier batting average on balls in play he allowed that month (.400 on the nose) doesn't need to be comprised entirely of bad luck. If he was having trouble locating, and was forced to throw strikes with fastballs that his opponents knew were coming, he's likely to give up more hits.
The 2011 season was supposed to be his moment to move past a poor finish to the year, but an oblique strain held him to just 157 frames. While his peripherals (and therefore FIP) improved, his ERA+ was just 84, down from 2010's 93. Once again, he gave up a well above-average rate of hits, and had the .333 BABIP to show for it.
Niese has 370 innings in the majors, and another 557 in the minors. In nearly all of these innings, he's been notably worse than average in terms of BABIP. It's an issue that's escalated in his two full seasons with the Mets:
We're just talking about two seasons and just over 300 innings here, so it's not time to panic or make a definitive statement just yet. But the fact Niese is that high, in a mostly-neutral park, with a mostly-average defense behind him, might say a lot, especially since his full-season BABIP marks from the minors are similar.
It's tempting to say things will get better because his FIP says he's superior to what he's produced, but, just like FIP is sometimes too pessimistic because it doesn't capture everything, it can also be too optimistic. Take the case of another pitcher from the NL East who was signed through his arbitration years, with the first year of his free agency bought out:
That's Ricky Nolasco, a pitcher who just about everyone has given up dreaming on despite his peripherals. He struggles to strand runners, has difficulties keeping the ball in the park, and is far worse than you'd think for someone who misses as many bats and avoids as many walks as he does. Niese has worse control, but sometimes bad things happen to him when he's in the strike zone too often, and, like Nolasco, he lets an awful lot of runners on base score. That's been a problem since before he came to the majors, too, unsurprising given the trail of lofty BABIP he's left behind him.
Niese tends to get crushed in innings four-through-six, reminding us that maybe those conditioning problems haven't erased themselves yet. Opponents have hit .300/.358/.481 against him in those frames for his career (152 innings), and an even more robust .362/.408/.585 (28 innings) from the seventh through the ninth. In 2010, he was 32 percent worse than your average pitcher with runners in scoring position, and when facing hitters for the third time in a game, 58 percent worse than average, allowing an OPS of 1002 in 207 plate appearances. Things were a bit better in 2011, but not significantly, as his 944 OPS when facing hitters the third time was 44 percent worse than average, and his pitches became targets from number 50 onward:
This doesn't mean the Mets made a huge mistake, or that Niese is doomed forever. He's left-handed, and all of 25 years old for the 2012 season. He has clear issues with consistency and maintaining his production into games that aren't just a case of poor luck, though. He'll have to fix those problems if those option years are going to be picked up or worth it for New York. He's got the time to do so, and at a cost that isn't prohibitive to the Mets. Baseball is a game of adjustments, and that's just what Niese will need to do to avoid becoming the next Nolasco.