Toward the middle part of the decade, the New York Mets searched far and wide in a quest to uncover pitching talent. The Mets opened up the check book in 2004 to sign Cuban right-hander Alay Soler to a $2.8 million major league contract, and handed out a guaranteed $4.2 million to Rice star Philip Humber, taken with the third overall pick in the draft. Venezuelan righty Deolis Guerra got a $700,000 bonus the following year, but Wichita State stud Mike Pelfrey dwarfed that amount by reeling in a guaranteed $5.25 million (with bonuses) as the ninth pick in the 2005 draft. Yet, for all of that globe-trekking and cash spent, New York’s best find over that period might just be a seventh-round pick from Defiance, Ohio — population 17,000.
Jonathon Niese, inked for $175,000 in the ’05 draft, was Ohio’s first high schooler to win back-to-back state player of the year awards. Hall of Fame backstop Gary Carter, then the Mets’ Gulf Coast League manager, lobbied the club to come to terms with the lefty. Niese compiled an impressive minor league dossier (8.2 K/9, 3.1 BB/9, 51.8 GB%, 3.57 FIP) and received some big league time in 2008 and 2009, but he entered 2010 looking to prove himself as an important part of the team’s long-term plans. The last image Mets fans had of the 6-3 southpaw in 2009 was his crumpling to the ground in agony — Niese strained his right hamstring trying to cover first base during an August 5th game against the Cardinals, then ripped a tendon off the bone while making a warm-up pitch. He underwent season-ending surgery.
While Niese did serve a DL stint in mid-May for his surgically-repaired hammy, he has emerged as a quality cog in the Mets’ rotation. The 23-year-old has 7.11 K/9, 2.84 BB/9 and a 49.1% ground ball rate in 133 innings pitched, a showing worth 1.8 Wins Above Replacement. Niese might be pitching a bit above his head at the moment — there’s a gap between his ERA (3.38) and xFIP (3.97) due to a near-78% rate of stranding runners on base — but he has nonetheless performed admirably.
The man hailing from the same town as Chad Billingsley doesn’t possess awe-inspiring stuff, with a fastball that typically sits 89-90 MPH. According to our Pitch Type Run Values, Niese’s heat has been -0.68 runs below average per 100 pitches thrown. But he’s not overly reliant on the pitch, throwing it about 55% of the time. Niese supplements his fastball with lots of mid-80’s cutters (26 percent), mid-70’s curves with 12-to-6 action (15 percent) and occasional low-80’s changeups (four to five percent). Those secondary offerings all have positive run values — +0.38 for the curve, +0.44 for the change and +1.41 for the cutter. Niese’s cutter has been particularly impressive. According to Pitch F/X data from TexasLeaguers, the pitch has been thrown for a strike 71.7% of the time (68.3% MLB average), with an 11.7% whiff rate that surpasses the 8.8% big league average.
Niese isn’t a monster talent, but there’s plenty to like here. He gets a solid number of punch outs, has average to slightly above-average control and keeps the ball on the ground, which adds up to a nice package of skills. Save for Pelfrey, those highly acclaimed, high-priced signees have fizzled out. But the Mets found a bargain in Niese. Now, the club has a young, cost-controlled asset for years to come.
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