Dillon Gee and Jonathon Niese: Fun with Numbers


One of my favorite things about baseball is that, as a math and stat geek (I’m a numbers guy, as a certain vice presidential candidate once claimed), there are endless lists of statistics and counts and numbers for me to pore through and try to learn more about the game. What amazes me is how diligently people work to record and quantify everything that happens on a baseball field. Doing so helps us understand what’s going on around us more, because there’s so much that we can’t discern with just our eyes.

“Think about it. One absolutely cannot tell, by watching, the difference between a .300 hitter and a .275 hitter. The difference is one hit every two weeks.” – Michael Lewis, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game

I mention Dillon Gee in the title because he presents an interesting case statistically. The general consensus regarding Gee is that he’s a decent #5 starter, but not a piece of a championship rotation. His 21-15 record is often mentioned alongside a somewhat pedestrian career 4.06 ERA in 303.1 career innings. On the surface, it’s a somewhat valid argument: Dillon isn’t exceptionally tall or athletic and he’s not a terribly hard thrower. That said, a much stronger argument can be made in support of him when you look further into his numbers.

July7, 2012; Flushing, NY,USA; New York Mets starting pitcher Dillon Gee (35) delivers a pitch during the first inning against the Chicago Cubs at Citi Field. Mandatory Credit: Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

For sake of context, we’ll consider Gee’s numbers alongside those of a young pitcher generally offered a much higher ceiling: Jon Niese. Niese and Gee are a similar age (Gee is almost exactly 6 months older). Niese reached the majors two years sooner, which fits the bill as he was drafted two years earlier. Gee, however, ascended through the minors more quickly, having thrown 120 fewer innings than Niese (which, again, makes sense when you consider that Niese was drafted out of high school and Gee from college). They also throw an extremely similar set of pitches, according to Fangraphs. They both throw a fastball (both two and four seam), a changeup and a curveball. Niese seemed to transition from a slider to a cutter that is now heavily featured (he threw the pitch nearly 28% of the time), while Gee kept with a slider. What makes it interesting isn’t that they throw similar pitches, it’s that they do so at very similar velocities:  their fastballs (Gee: 90.2mph, Niese 90.4), change ups (Gee 83.2, Niese 83.6), and curveballs (Gee 73.9, Niese 74.4).

The fact that they feature similar repertoire is more or less only a superficial comparison; they each use their talents differently and their pitches in different situations. Jon Niese, of course, is also left-handed. That said, it speaks to their physical talents – they’re pitchers of a similar age who throw at similar speeds. These are easily observable with the naked eye. What’s slightly more interesting is the results they get: what they do on the mound.

Minor Leagues

Thanks to the folks at baseball-reference, we can get some detailed statistics for both pitchers. I’ve created a handy chart that offers some comparison between their minor league numbers.

July 17, 2012; Washington, D.C., USA; New York Mets pitcher Jon Niese (49) pitches in the fourth inning against the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park. The Nationals defeated the Mets 5 – 4 in 10 innings. Mandatory Credit: Joy R. Absalon-USA TODAY Sports

The first thing that sticks out is that their strikeout rates (overall) are nearly identical (if you extrapolate Gee’s rates to match Niese’s innings, he would have 506). Niese has a significantly higher walk rate, which is a fair assertion considering that Niese’s minor league career began at age 18 (a claim that appears to be supported by Niese’s rate declining by nearly 1.8 percentage points in the higher levels, to a rate very similar to Dillon Gee’s). Two things I take away from this is that (A) Dillon Gee’s strikeout rates remained higher than Niese’s (by a larger margin) in the upper levels of the minors, and (B) that Gee’s hit rates remained lower than Niese’s (again, by a larger margin) in the upper levels. That said, their upper-minors numbers appear awfully similar, enough so to suggest a reasonably similar career path.

Major Leagues

Below is a second chart, comparing the same stats (the only difference is that I’m replacing IP with IP/start):

A few things worth noting here are that, as a whole, their numbers are once again very similar. Especially in 2012, a year in which Niese was credited with taking a huge step forward. It seems that, for all intents and purposes, Gee did as well. In fact, Gee outpaced Jon Niese in both FIP (3.71 vs. 3.80) and xFIP (3.54 vs. 3.64).

Looking at Dillon Gee’s improvements from 2011 to 2012 suggests ‘regression’ of sorts, in that his hit and walk rates are a near match to his performance in the upper minors. His strikeout rate is lower, but that’s reasonable given the superior competition of major league lineups. He also went from averaging roughly 5.2 innings in 2011, to over 6.1 in 2012. If you look at the game logs on baseball-reference, you see that Gee’s 2012 was much better than advertised, in fact. He had two poor starts that inflated his ERA (in his other 15, his ERA was a svelte 3.11).

Can I say with confidence that Dillon Gee will be an excellent pitcher going forward? Of course not; there are far too many variables both on and off the baseball field.  His repertoire doesn’t qualify as ‘sexy’ by any stretch, but Dillon Gee’s success in 2012 strongly supports what many consider his best asset – that he knows how to get the most out of his abilities. Looking at his peripherals, I would certainly consider him poised for a breakout year in 2013.