The 2011 season has not even ended yet, but I am already excited by the variety of players I may potentially roster next year at a discount. Many owners come into their drafts with a target list of players that they are hoping to acquire. To be honest, I do not understand this at all for single-season leaguers. All I am interested in is value and do not really care what name is attached to my projected stats and resulting valuation. Without getting further off topic, I did a quick sort by SIERA and was surprised to see Jonathon Niese‘s name ranked 18th, right behind Tim Lincecum.
On the surface, Niese has had a fairly disappointing season, posting a 4.40 ERA (118 ERA-) and 1.41 WHIP. Of course, if we compare this year to last when he posted a 4.20 ERA, it doesn’t seem like such a disappointment. But Niese showed some excellent skills this year. Unfortunately, his last start came toward the end of August after suffering an intercostal strain that will likely end up cutting his season short.
Niese never posted overly impressive strikeout rates in the minors, but they were always decent enough. His 19.9% K% is above the 18.5% league average, though a below average SwStk% suggests his K/9 has more downside than upside at this point. However, his average fastball velocity has gained nearly 1.0 miles per hour, which is rather significant, and that could be behind the increased percentage of called strikes he has enjoyed this season.
One of the bigger gains he made was with his control. Though he had always posted pretty good walk rates, this year his BB% was just 6.3%, well below the 8.1% league average. In an attempt to make this as unbiased as possible and at the risk of raining on my own parade, I do want to point out that his F-Strike% has actually dropped to the lowest mark of his short career, and just below the league average. That makes the control gains a little more interesting and makes me question whether they are sustainable.
Last, he has made some small gains in ground ball rate, pushing that mark above 50%, after living in the high 40% range previously. The fewer fly balls will help keep his home runs allowed total down and additional ground balls will hopefully lead to more potential double plays.
Judging by SIERA and xFIP, Niese was a bit unlucky last season. A .324 BABIP did most of the damage. This year though, his skills improvement has led to a sharp drop in both of those metrics, but a .333 BABIP this time, and a lowly 67% LOB%, has inflated his ERA. Looking forward to next season, I do think his strikeout rate is going to decline a bit, while his walk rate creeps up. But even still, his overall skill set given neutral luck suggests an ERA closer to the 3.50-3.75 range, rather than above 4.00. When you combine that with the fewer than 160 innings pitched this season, he may very well be an afterthought for fantasy leaguers. As such, he should make for an excellent buy in NL-Only leagues and could generate some mixed league value as well.