I'm generally bullish on Jonathon Niese to the point where I drafted him in a 20-team dynasty league just last week. But given the realities of this current Mets staff, my belief is that the Mets should develop him the old school way by starting him out in long relief. Alas, they've all but announced that Niese has won the fifth starter's job.
You get a stiff tailwind as a reliever that's been documented elsewhere but that I have previously precisely calculated in a way that jibed with Bill James, I'm told. The bottom line, you can expect a 20-to-30-plus percent improvement in ERA, strikeout rate, walk rate and hit rate for the starter in the bullpen.
I'm not talking about making Niese into a modern reliever -- two or three innings a week. I'd expect four-to-six per week, especially given how unpredictable the non-Johan Santana starters are likely to be. And it would be far from permanent, as injury or ineffectiveness will knock out someone in the rotation soon enough -- June 1 being the over/under.
Niese would especially benefit from this because he must develop his changeup into a pitch that he uses 15-to-20 percent of the time rather than six-to-nine percent as has been the case during his brief Major League career. I'd prefer he do that in the relatively non-pressurized conditions of long relief. He profiles currently as a 75 percent fastball/cutter pitcher and I do not believe his stuff is good enough to succeed like that.
While he can develop his change in the rotation, he's much more likely to suffer bad results that way. Perhaps he's so self-assured that he can withstand this and keep plugging away. But I believe that a pitcher who profiles like Niese -- one who will have to alternate between trickery and fearlessness in teasing hitters first and then daring them by busting them inside with an average fastball -- is best served by more positive early returns.
Let's try to precisely quantify what we'd expect from Niese as a starter and reliever, with the help of consensus projections as noted on FanGraphs. There, the community gives Niese the starter a 4.50 ERA with about 7 K/9 and 3.5 BB/9 and about 1.1 hits per inning.
Using my starter/reliever conversion formula, Niese the reliever would be expected to improve to 9.6 K/9, 2.8 BB/9, a 3.20 ERA and 0.9 hits per inning. I must note that I believe this level of conversion is too generous for a long reliever because he's not as likely to have the platoon advantages to the degree given to relievers in general. However, a lefty long reliever can be expected to have greater advantages than a righty one especially given he's likely to be coming in for three righties and only one lefty (Oliver Perez; Santana probably won't need long relief). So I would not expect Niese's conversion to fall dramatically short of that line.
With Pitcher X, it wouldn't matter whether he was deployed in the easier relief environment because then we'd just have to convert him back when he becomes a starter.
But the developing pitcher gets the psychological benefit of realizing he can get hitters out with secondary pitches. This then increases the likelihood of translating this success into the tougher role.
As recently as 2007, Zack Greinke really harnessed his ability after honing it while pitching in relief. The Mets also developed David Cone in this manner, albeit briefly. Of course, Santana famously developed confidence in his change while pitching in long relief for the Twins.
The Mets have a very plausible option as a fifth starter, Nelson Figueroa, who is projected to pitch about as well as Niese. Not only does Figueroa deserve a chance but giving it to him keeps him stateside and away from the Japanese League, which is enticing him to toil overseas.
There's a very reasonable chance that the Mets' rotation will need both Figueroa and Niese before the All-Star Break. The team is thus best served by bringing both of them north. But I'd prefer that Niese -- a long-term piece -- be given the easier path to success in April and May.