But by many rate stats, [Jon] Niese has been just as good if not better than [Gio] Gonzalez. Gonzalez strikes out a few more batters, but Niese has a way better strikeout to walk ratio. Niese has yielded a slightly higher ground-ball rate across his career but has fallen victim to (or, depending on whom you ask, been the perpetrator of) a much higher batting average on balls in play. Both pitch their home games in parks known for suppressing home runs, but Gonzalez has allowed fewer home runs per fly ball over the past two seasons.
All that adds up to mean that though Gonzalez has pitched to a much better ERA and ERA+ over the past two seasons, Niese has had a better xFIP both years and boasts a lower career FIP.
– Ted Berg, “Just Asking”
If you listen to the Mostly Mets Podcast or follow me on the Twitter, you can probably guess where I stand on this issue. But in case you don’t: Give me Gio Gonzalez over Jon Niese in a heartbeat. I wouldn’t think twice about it.
Let me explain. I’ll point back to this Baseball Prospectus post by the excellent Colin Wyers, about Baseball Prospectus dropping Skill-Interactive ERA, a short-lived ERA predictor/explainer/complicated-thing. Comparing different ERA predictors, Wyers writes:
Looking at all pitchers with at least 100 innings, SIERA outperforms the other estimators (but not by much, as I’ll explain momentarily) as well as ERA. By about 400 innings, though, the gap between the ERA estimators (as well as the gap between them all and ERA) has essentially disappeared. As you add more and more innings, plain old ERA outperforms the estimators, with basic FIP ranking second-best.
If I understand Wyers correctly, once you get to about 300-400 innings, a pitcher’s past ERA is just as good at predicting his future ERA as any of the ERA-estimators (FIP or Fielding Independent Pitching, xFIP or expected Fielding Independent Pitching, and SIERA). If you have one season of information, go with FIP. But once you get up to around 500 innings, ERA outpaces the others.
Gonzalez, in terms of results, has been a much better pitcher than Niese. Gonzalez has passed the 500 inning mark for his career, and has a 3.93 ERA and a 106 ERA+; Niese is at 370.2 innings for his career, and has a 4.39 ERA and an 88 ERA+. It’s also worth noting that Gonzalez has also been healthy throughout his entire major and minor league career and has broken the 200 innings barrier twice. Niese has topped out at 178 innings, in 2008, and missed the end of both 2009 and 2011 with injuries.
There’s a case for Niese. He has the better FIP and xFIP, and may prove cheaper — but he also has a remarkably high batting average against on balls in play for his career, which is why his ERA is so much higher than his FIP. Of the 1,719 pitchers who have thrown at least 350 innings since the end of World War II, Jon Niese has the the 4th highest BABIP. He’s ranked number 4 out of 1,719. I’m not sure if it’s the kind of thing that can be written off as bad luck and poor defenders. While I believe Niese’s career ERA is going to come down, I don’t think it’s going to come down that far.
The way I see it, Niese wins in FIP and xFIP over his 370 innings . . . and then every other conceivable category goes to Gonzalez. And useful as FIP and xFIP are, they have their limits. Given the chance, I’d take Gonzalez over Niese in a heart beat.