Friday night, fellow Rising Apple writer Michael Lecolant noted quite accurately that the New York Mets’ rotation is looking for a young arm to step forward and take the baton from Johan Santana as the staff ace. He astutely singled out Jonathon Niese, whose 2012 season marked a significant step forward in his development.
After reading Michael’s article [If you haven't read it yet, please do so here], I decided to take a deeper look into Niese’s season and came away thinking that he may be even better qualified for the honor than some of us may think.
Niese’s 2012 was considered by many as a breakout campaign, during which he set career bests in innings, ERA, K/BB ratio, WHIP, and a plethora of other stats. His 7.3 K/9 was his lowest mark, but this appears to be the product of him pitching deeper into games, as his strikeout rate in 2012 (19.67%) was very similar to the past two seasons (19.88% in 2011, 19.22% in 2010).
The mark of an ‘ace’ is somewhat vague. Some attribute the name to the best pitcher on each staff, others use it as a general term for the game’s elite. In an attempt to do both, I’ve developed a baseline of sorts (for sake of fun, let’s call it an “aceline”) by averaging the 2012 stats of the top 10 pitchers in the National League (by fWAR. Niese ranked 30th, although he ranked 12th in baseball-reference’s metric). Here’s how he matches up:
So the average ace, if you will, accumulates roughly a 14-9 record, averages 210 innings (6.64 IP/start) and a 3.69 K/BB ratio, and has an ERA of 3.07 (5 of the 10 members of this list have sub-3.00 ERAs). Other than Niese’s high home run numbers, his stats fit the bill so far fairly well (his BABIP is 14 points lower, but since home runs aren’t considered, I’d more or less consider them equal. He didn’t quite pitch as deep (6.34 IP/start), and his strikeout numbers aren’t quite up to snuff (the Aceline is 23.15%). But for a guy coming into his fourth full season as a starter, he’s doing pretty well.
If I’m looking at specific categories (those that you’d hear someone cite on TV) that define an ace, it’s the ability to pitch deep into games (IP/start) and the ability to do so well (ERA, WHIP). Strikeouts are a good strength to have, but I’m not going to place significant weight on any specific type of out (in the interest of science, I’ll note that two of the 10 pitchers on the list have lower K/9 marks than Niese’s 7.33).
Here is a chart that displays the ERA of each of Niese’s 30 starts in 2012:
What jumps out immediately are the two distinct outliers on this list. Normally I would consider it unfair to eliminate from a sample, but it’s pretty clear that those two starts aren’t indicative of the package you’re getting. If we don’t consider those two starts, Niese’s ERA drops to 2.88, which is better than the Aceline we’ve established.
In Niese’s 30 starts in 2012, he failed to pitch at least 6 innings four times. In two of those four starts, he only pitched 3 innings. Because he didn’t get injured in 2012, it would lead that the starts were cut short due to poor performance, which would make them somewhat anomalous. Should we remove these two starts from the set, the average jumps to 6.58 innings/start, which nearly matches the 6.64 Aceline mark (the difference is negligible – roughly 2 innings over 32 starts).
As it turns out, the outliers on the two same starts, are the two same starts! They are May 1st (at Houston – 3 IP, 5 ER) and May 18th (3 IP, 8 ER). In both cases, the long ball was what did Niese in – he gave up 6 home runs in those two starts (2 and 4, respectively). Though it’s unfair to formally eliminate them from consideration, identifying them allows us to make a keen observation: that 28 of Niese’s 30 starts in 2012 are on par with the National League’s 10 best pitchers:
In all, it seems safe to say that Niese absolutely has the ability to be an Ace, and in 93% of his outings in 2012 he played the part admirably. The final step in Niese’s development is to minimize his mistakes (or at least mitigate their effect); if he can eliminate the occasional disaster (i.e. the two starts I’ve identified) he will be able to throw himself into the National League’s elite.