Despite what you may have heard, the Mets had several break-out performances in the minors this season. This particular starter-turned-reliever-turned-starter out of Wake came out of nowhere to take AA by storm. If you're new to this series, catch up here:
Physical Stats: 6'0" 192 lbs
Position: Starting Pitcher
Drafted: 3rd Round 2007, Wake Forest University
Current Team: Binghamton Mets
Niesen is a little lefty with a live arm. Using a slightly unusual three-quarter style delivery, Niesen can generate plus heat, dialing his fastball into the mid-90s despite his small stature. He also features a slider that is at times a very effective second pitch, and at times isn't very useful at all. His changeup is below average. Deception is a strength for Niesen, and helps him dominate left handed batters, though it comes with some mechanical inconsistencies. Due to his lack of height, Niesen has a difficult time generating downhill plane on his pitches, and as a result has a tendency to pitch up in the zone and generate lots of fly balls.
The best side-angle shot of Niesen is from his final year at Wake Forest:
His delivery here seems fairly fluid with good tempo. His arm drags a little and he has a delayed-recoil of the arm, but it doesn't seem particularly violent. At Wake he only hit the mid-90s out the bullpen, but the Mets decided to move him back into a starting role. Here's a more recent video that was a fanshot earlier in the year:
This video gives a clear shot of his 3/4 delivery, which accounts for his platoon split. Also notice the pause between when he pulls the ball back and when he moves his arm forward. Niesen is probably "scap loading" or loading the scapula before delivery, which can be a big driver of arm speed. It could just a quirk of his 3/4 delivery, but the pointing of his elbow toward thirdbase makes me think otherwise.
After a fairly mediocre prospect career in his first two season, Niesen has really broken out in a big way this year and put himself squarely on the radar. He misses lots bats, especially against fellow southpaws. Since his promotion to Binghamton, Niesen has struck out an astounding 37.3% of the lefty batters he's faced (34 Ks in 91 PAs). He has also shown excellent improvement through the season, posting a 2.72 FIP since August 1, a streak spanning 52.2 IP. The biggest concern for Niesen, as with many young pitchers discussed so far, is his command. He struggles to control the zone and has had a very difficult time limiting free passes since reaching Double-A, with a BB% of 11.6%. There's lots of reason for optimism as long as he keeps his K% so high, but it's a trend to keep an eye on.
With 83 IP in AA, it's fairly safe to say that Niesen's sudden spike in K% was more real than illusory. The control is worrisome and the main thing to focus on going forward, but at this level I'd rather have a dominating pitcher with control problems than one that pounds the zone with average stuff. Minor league batted ball data is somewhat unreliable, but for a pitcher who so often pitches up in the zone, his consistent homerun suppression and groundball rates are encouraging. Obviously, Citi Field's dimensions would compliment a pitcher with his approach.
Fun with Comparable Players:
Scott Boras says: Ted Lilly
Lilly was another little power lefty who took some time to develop. Lilly remained in the minors through his mid 20s, a scenario that seems likely for Niesen, despite his solid arsenal. Lilly actually reached the upper levels at a younger age and didn't have command issues quite as extreme as Niesen. Still, he represents a good picture of what the outcome for Niesen might look like if he wrangles in his breaking ball and solidifies his command. And like Lilly, it will still probably take Niesen at least another year or two before he has a chance to be an effective starter at the major league level.
Impartial Observer says: Mike Gonzalez
Probably a more appropriate comparison in terms of minor league progression and statistics, Gonzalez was also a slow moving lefty starter who always missed bats in the minors, but had some real struggles with his command. He also spent his age 23 season between HiA and Double-A, and had similar success that season, though it took him quite a bit longer and a transition to relief pitching to become a full time major leaguer. He finally converted to the bullpen for his age 25 season. Though he would continue to struggle a bit with control, he would throw only 49 more minor league innings before becoming a full time big leaguer, a stretch in which he would post a 36.2 K%. Gonzalez would go on to carve out a very nice career as a solid closer on some second division clubs. Though there's no guarantee Niesen will ever be good enough to close, he could very well be more than just a LOOGY should he wind up in the pen.
Steve Phillips Says: Pick a generic LOOGY.
Niesen looks like a pretty safe bet to be a guy who can retire left handed hitters, and though the upside is there for more, you have to figure Mr. Phillips has a good chance to be right about this one.
Ceiling WAR: 3.0
Median WAR: 1.0
The starter v. reliever question has a lot of bearing on his Win-value, as a move to the bullpen would put his potential value more in the 0-1.5 range.
The nice thing about Niesen as this point is that he looks like the kind of guy who will, at the very least, make a very effective LOOGY. But he's also not a low-upside arm. He has the kind of power arsenal that could lead to any number of possible career paths. Given his age and uneven development until this year, the most likely scenario probably dumps him in the bullpen eventually, but a spike in command could turn him into a very effective starter.