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Fernando Nieve or Nelson Figueroa?

Unless the Mets sign John Smoltz (get it done Omar  Frenchy!) or pull of an unlikely last-minute trade, the Mets seem poised to go into the year with the familiar Santana-Pelfrey-Perez-Maine. From a management perspective, that rotation represents an incredible failure to upgrade the most lacking area of the team. As a rotation on a competitive team, however, that group is not totally unfit for the task. A Mike Pelfrey with Jose Reyes and David Wright playing competent defense is a Mike Pelfrey with a shiny ERA. Oliver Perez backlash officially hit comic proportions when someone suggested to me recently that he would get virtually no money on the open market. If he really is in-shape, Perez will keep enough velocity between his fastball and changeup to keep righties honest and the walk-rate down. Perez may be the least certain quantity in baseball, the yin to Garland's yang, but I'll take his shut-down potential over Jon Garland's generic brand of inning any day (though not for 3/36 of course). Maine is great fourth starter, if he ever makes it to the mound. 

Of course, the first four are never the problem on paper--it's that the share of times they will take the ball is closer to 2/3 or 1/2 than it is 4/5. So who takes the ball the extra 50-70 starts a season? Ideally a dependable but crappy fifth starter and a mix high-ceiling prospects and designated "spot-starters" rotate in and out of the fifth spot as needed. Without even a reliable "#4" on the depth chart, however, the Mets unsurprisingly project a oft-injured waiver claim from last season, Fernando Nieve, to be the go-to "#5". 

The immediate reaction from the stat-savvy is too denounce the decision based on peripheral statistics not supporting Nieve's very-low 2.95 ERA from last season. One must remember, though, that this argument is against using Fernando Nieve's ERA to evaluate his 2009, not an argument against Fernando Nieve. In just 36 innings, Nieve's "actual" performance (4.90 FIP) tells us about as little as the ERA. Despite the many other factors going against Nieve's sustained success as a major league starter, Nieve likely will not be a 1:1 strikeout-to-walk pitcher going forward. 

So with Jon Niese, arguably the second-best pitcher in the organization, uncertain or at least unlikely to start the year in the majors, Nieve's main competition for a rotation spot comes from Nelson Figueroa, soft-tossing fan-favorite. Most would likely say "CHONE projected 4.29 FIP" and hand the job to Figgy on face, which is probably a more rational decision-making criteria than whatever makes the Mets love Nieve (ERA?). The question for me seems more complicated and, at least worth exploring, as I hopelessly search for optimism. I'm also not totally comfortable accepting Figgy's generous projections. 

Age/Projectability: Clearly, Nieve wins this category, at age 27 with intriguing stuff (more on that later). Theoretically, he should be in the prime of his career, while Figueroa's best days may be passed. To clarify, projetability here means potential to exceed expectation, not expectation, which Figueroa probably holds over Nieve.

Control: Here Figueroa beats Nieve, but not by the margins you might expect. While Nieve's control has been historically pretty poor (3.88 career BB/9), Figgy really hasn't been much better (3.65 BB/9). Still, with Nieve just a year removed from Tommy John recovery and Figueroa's improvements in AAA last season, Figgy wins.

Stuff: And herein lies the rub. With Citi Field tempering Nieve's homerun problems and his control not that far behind Figueora's, maybe you take a chance on his supposedly great stuff causing a spike in strikeouts. Baseball America used to rave about the quality of his fastball/slider combo, along with a developing curve, during Nieve's prospect days with Houston. Dave Cameron wrote of the young Fernando in 2003:

I saw Nieve throw twice for Martinsville last summer and came away more impressed the second time around. He featured plus velocity for a 20-year-old (he turns 21 in July), hitting 94 with such regularity that I stopped looking at the radar gun. He topped out at 98, but didn't show a tremendous amount of movement on his two-seam fastball. His curveball was a strong 12-6 power curve, thrown between 81-84. It has hard break, but his command came and went, and he was still getting a feel for the pitch. His changeup was in the developmental stage, but he flashed potential with it as a third pitch. The repertoire to be a strikeout pitcher is definitely there.

Baseball America once dropped the Pedro-minus-changeup comp. So did the stuff survive the injuries? Looking at the 600+ pitches he threw in front of pitch-f/x cameras last season, the results were interesting. 

His fastball was clearly his best pitch, with an above-average 11 inches of vertical movement and above-average velocity. Generally, any fastball with 10+ inches of vertical spin is good, and I'd call that Nieve's one plus-pitch last season. Surprisingly, Nieve's changeup also looked good with average horizontal movement, +4 inches of vertical movement, and nearly 9 mph behind his fastball. This chart by Dave Allen demonstrates the idea, that generally any extreme amount of movement is good for a changeup:



Nieve's changeup last year sat right in the heart of that green area last season, making it a useful weapon against lefties and a reason for hope that he can get lefties out consistently and become more than a situational reliever. 

His slider, his supposed best-pitch, didn't show the tailing-away action typical of a good slider. Sliders vary greatly in terms of movement pitcher-to-pitcher, however, and other hurlers have had success with sliders similar to Nieve's. Gary Cohen called it a "slurve," which makes sense, considering it had the horizontal break of an average slider but a negative vertical break, which is more characteristic of curveballs.

The curveball looked poor. It teetered dangerously in between a good looping pitch and a tight quick-breaking curve. Fangraphs lists it as his second-most thrown pitch last season, which is a mistake in pitch-selection, considering his fastball-changeup combo. His pitch run-values from last season, which measure how hitters actually did against each pitch, confirms, with his changeup and fastball both having positive run values, his breaking balls both negative. I remember him inducing a few swinging-third-stikes last season with it and he might get similar use out of the pitch going forward, if he further limits its use.

For Figueroa, everything is seemingly the opposite. He needs to mix pitches to be effective, because his fastball, changeup, and slider are all pretty pedestrian. His curveball is his one interesting pitch. Check out the graph on the right, also from Dave Allen, in which the negative values are best:



Notice how great 10 inches of Horizontal Movement is and consider that Figgy's curveball registered slightly over 10 last inches year, making it a pretty good weapon against righties. 

Conclusion: In a perfect world, I'd like to see Nieve's explosive fastball in the bullpen and Figgy in AAA, but neither might happen at this rate. If Figueroa got the job, it would be interesting whether he truly could pitch as the second best player on the staff (per CHONE) and entrench himself in that spot. Manuel indicated Nieve was the man, however, and his potential is considerable enough that I won't complain. If he can control and be consistent with his changeup, not a small "if," he could be a pretty decent starter. If his "slurve" regains some past glory, he could be good.