Matt Harvey might be the Mets pitcher most likely to lead the league in strikeouts or win the Cy Young Award in 2013, but Jon Niese seems like the best bet to have the strongest season of any Mets pitcher. Harvey's ceiling is higher but we can project the latter with slightly more confidence, if that makes sense. Niese had a career-best season in 2012, making his 5-year, $26 million extension look better now than it already did when it was agreed upon last spring. He certainly deserves the Opening Day nod with Johan Santana on the shelf.
The injuries and late-season fades that bedeviled Niese in prior seasons didn't surface in 2012. He tossed a career-high 190.1 innings and was especially strong in September, when he posted a 2.49 ERA over four starts. While his full-season peripherals were right in line with his career marks, his BABIP dropped to .272 (average pitcher BABIP is around .300), leading to an ERA of 3.40. His career BABIP and ERA prior to 2012 were .329 and 4.39, respectively. It's easy to write off the BABIP variance to randomness and a marginally-improved Mets defense. However, Niese increased his cutter usage in 2012, which was one of his better pitches. He also fared much better as he went deeper into games than in the past; he was terrific for pitches 51-100 in 2012 after struggling over the same stretch in prior seasons. He admitted to suffering both physical and mental fatigue late in prior seasons and vowed to improve his conditioning. Perhaps the combination of stronger pitch repertoire and increased physical and mental stamina helped him improve his runs allowed in 2012, even as his strikeout, walk, and ground-ball rates remained constant. It's a theory without much tangible evidence but it gets boring saying "sh*t happens" for every statistical fluctuation, even if the aphorism is at least partially justified.
Having said all that, I doubt Niese will maintain a BABIP in the .270 range going forward. I like him for almost 200 innings in 2013 with typically strong peripherals. The young man from Defiance, Ohio, whose demeanor both on the mound and in the postgame is anything but defiant, will provide relief every fifth day to Mets fans who might endure another trying season. Post your Niese projection in the comments in the same format as below. I'll compare our projections to actual results at season's end.