Saturday, November 22, 2014

Dillon Gee vs. Jonathon Niese: Who Should Be Traded?

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports/Getty Images via

I love watching Dillon Gee pitch.  Similarly, I am a fan of Jonathon Niese.

Although the Mets have been under .500 every season Gee has pitched in the majors, Gee himself has a won-loss record that is six games over .500 and he has never been more than one game under the break-even mark over a full season.  Jonathon Niese, on the other hand, is one of the few Mets left on the team who played at Shea Stadium (David Wright, Daniel Murphy and Bobby Parnell are the others, although Murphy and Parnell may not be on this list much longer).  Niese is also the team's only southpaw on a staff filled with right-handed pitchers.

As much as I enjoy having Gee and Niese on the team, I understand that the starting rotation currently has Bartolo Colon, Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler and Jacob deGrom taking up four spots, with Noah Syndergaard waiting in the wings.  Assuming Colon is traded at some point during the 2015 season (if not sooner), Syndergaard would be the obvious choice to replace him in the rotation.  That would leave one of the members of the Gee-Niese duo out of luck and perhaps out of a job in New York.

Knowing full well that either Gee or Niese will not be a Met by this time next year, I decided to see which player the Mets would be better off keeping.  One or both pitchers might be traded if the right deal comes along, but I think one of the two would be better off staying in the Mets' starting rotation.  Here's my reasoning for the player I would like to stick around.

Although he has a 3.91 ERA for his career, Dillon Gee has had only one full season in the majors in which he posted an ERA under 4.00.  Advanced metrics also have his lifetime FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) at 4.23.  For all you kids out there, FIP measures how effective a pitcher is at limiting home runs, walks and hit batsmen while causing strikeouts.  Basically, those are the four categories in which fielders do not determine an outcome.  Therefore, Gee's 4.23 FIP is considered a little higher than what is expected from an average pitcher.

Jonathon Niese has a 3.87 career ERA, but has posted a sub-4.00 ERA in each of his last three seasons, going under 3.50 in two of the last three campaigns.  But on the FIP side, Niese has a lifetime 3.72 FIP and has posted a FIP under 4.00 in each of his last four seasons.  Niese has walked more batters than Gee, but has hit fewer batters and allowed fewer home runs per nine innings than Gee.  And when it comes to strikeouts, Niese is far superior to Gee, as Niese has surpassed 130 strikeouts in a season four times, while Gee has done it just once.

Speaking of strikeouts, although Niese is just 28 years old (he's actually six months younger than Dillon Gee), he's already in the Mets' all-time top ten in career strikeouts.  Niese's 713 Ks are tenth on the team's lifetime leaderboard and he is just one strikeout behind Bobby Jones for ninth place.  Once he passes Jones, the only pitchers in front of him will be Tom Seaver, Dwight Gooden, Jerry Koosman, Sid Fernandez, David Cone, Ron Darling, Al Leiter and Jon Matlack.  You may also know that octet as arguably the eight best pitchers in the history of the franchise.   Niese's strikeout-to-walk ratio (2.69; 713 K/265 BB) is also far better than Gee's ratio (2.26; 464 K/205 BB).

Let's look at another new metric to determine a pitcher's effectiveness - ERA+.  This metric compares a pitcher's earned run average to the league average and also accounts for park factors, with 100 being considered an average ERA+.  For example, Citi Field is generally considered a pitcher's park.  However, Dillon Gee has never posted an ERA+ of 100 in any of his four full seasons.  From 2011 to 2014, Gee has posted a 90 ERA+, with a career-best 98 ERA+ in 2013, which is still 2% worse than the average pitcher.  Meanwhile, Jonathon Niese has a 97 ERA+ since he became a regular in the rotation in 2010.  But since 2012, Niese has a 104 ERA+, making him 4% better than the average pitcher over the last three seasons.  Niese's career-best performance in this metric came in 2012, when he posted a 112 ERA+.

WAR (wins above replacement) is all the rage in this sabermetric era of baseball.  The higher the WAR, the better the player.  It's that simple.  Looking at the WAR posted by Gee and Niese since 2011 (the year both pitchers were rotation-mates for the first time), it's clear which pitcher has been more valuable to the team.  Gee has a 4.5 WAR since 2011, going above 1.0 just once in the four years (2013, when he posted a 2.2 WAR).  In the same time period, Niese has a 6.2 WAR, posting a 3.4 WAR in 2012 and a 1.7 WAR this past season.

WAR.  What is it good for?  For Niese, it might be good for keeping him in New York.  (Brad Penner/USA Today Sports)

Finally, let's look at one overlooked, but still important, part of the pitcher's game - his offense.  When a pitcher comes to bat, he's not expected to do much.  If there's a runner on base, he's expected to bunt him over.  If there's no one on base, the best a pitcher is expected to do is not get hurt swinging the bat and maybe make the opposing pitcher throw a few extra pitches.  When it comes to proficiency with the bat, there's no contest between Gee and Niese.

Since becoming a regular in the rotation in 2011, Dillon Gee has a .154 on-base percentage, reaching base 27 times (18 hits, nine walks) in 206 plate appearances.  Meanwhile, since Niese joined the rotation for good in 2010, he has reached base an incredible 66 times (38 hits, 28 walks) in 304 plate appearances, which is a .237 on-base percentage.  Of all pitchers with at least 200 plate appearances since 2010, only Zack Greinke (.274 OBP in 245 PA) and Mike Leake (.261 OBP in 338 PA) have a higher on-base percentage than Jonathon Niese and only Ian Kennedy has drawn more walks (32 BB in 342 PA) than Niese.  Kennedy and Niese are the only pitchers who have walked more than 20 times since 2010.

So let's review.  Jonathon Niese has a better ERA, ERA+, FIP and WAR than Dillon Gee.  Niese is also much more adept at recording strikeouts than Gee and has a better K/BB ratio.  And while Gee is almost an automatic out with the bat, Niese gives the Mets a ninth hitter in the lineup, reaching base just under a quarter of the time.  Niese isn't going to break into a home run trot any time soon, but he has proven to be one of the better handlers of the bat among National League pitchers.

Dillon Gee will blow out 29 candles during the first month of the 2015 campaign.  Jonathon Niese will be 28 all season.  Niese has more experience than Gee, having pitched at Shea Stadium.  Niese is also left-handed, something no other starting pitcher on the Mets can claim.  Although Gee is still arbitration eligible and will likely not command more than $5 million in 2015, Niese is due $7 million in 2015 and $9 million in 2016, hardly amounts that would break the Wilpon family piggy bank.

If the Mets are going to trade one of their veteran homegrown pitchers before the curtains rise on the 2015 season, it should be clear which one should go.  Although I've always enjoyed watching him pitch and still believe he can be successful in New York, Dillon Gee will probably be the victim of an overcrowded starting rotation.  Jonathon Niese, despite all the question marks surrounding his health, has still made at least 24 starts in each of his five full seasons in the majors.  Gee has surpassed 22 starts just twice in his four full seasons with the Mets.  Also, Niese may not always utter the most politically correct statements, especially when it comes to Mets fans' loyalty, but you can't say he was pulling things out of his posterior.  If the Mets are going to draw the crowds Niese was used to seeing when he was a neophyte, then the team has to play better.  And right now, I believe the team will perform better with Niese on the team instead of Gee.

Of course, trading Gee or Niese will depend on the package the Mets would receive in return, but if each package was similar and the Mets had an option of trading either player, then that player should be Gee.  The future of the team would look a lot brighter if it held on to Niese.

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