Florida Marlins righty Ricky Nolasco entered the 2009 season with some serious helium. The former Cubs prospect overcame an elbow injury that curtailed his 2007 campaign to post a breakout performance in 2008.
In 212.1 IP, Nolasco compiled a 3.77 Fielding Independent ERA (FIP). The California native punched out 7.88 batters per nine innings, while also exhibiting razor-sharp control with 1.78 BB/9. Nolasco came equipped with a dizzying array of pitches, able to zip a solid low-90’s fastball by hitters, buckle knees with a low-80’s slider or mid-70’s curve or pull out the occasional low-80’s splitter. Ricky was worth 3.6 Wins Above Replacement, providing the cost-conscious Fish with $16M in production for a dirt-cheap salary.
As the 2009 season wraps up, Nolasco’s surface stats would lead one to believe that he has been a bust. After all, his ERA is over five (5.06), and he was demoted to the minors in late May.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
If anything, the skills over which Nolasco has the most direct control have gotten stronger. Ricky has whiffed 9.49 hitters per nine frames, sandwiching him between Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw for 7th among all starting pitchers. Nolasco remains precise, too, with 2.14 BB/9. That’s in the top 20 for starters. His FIP is down to 3.35, ranking just behind Dan Haren and in front of Ubaldo Jimenez.
Nolasco’s first-pitch strike percentage has dipped somewhat, from 63.6% in 2008 to 60.9% in 2009 (that’s still above the 58.2% MLB average). But he has induced more hacks on pitches out of the zone, with an O-Swing% increase from 28.6 in ’08 to 29.3 in ’09 (25.1% MLB average). His overall contact rate, 79.3% in 2008, is 78.2% this year (80.5% ML average). Based on his FIP, Nolasco has compiled four WAR this season, providing $18M worth of value for the Marlins.
So, why is there such a large discord between Nolasco’s ERA and his FIP? His BABIP sits at a lofty .336, third-highest among all starters. Florida’s fielders haven’t helped, ranking 22nd in team Ultimate Zone Rating. Ricky’s rate of stranding runners on base is also unusually low, at an even 61 percent (the average for starters tends to be around 70-72 percent). That’s the worst mark for a starter in the majors.
Ricky did give up a higher percentage of line drives this season (21.8%, 20.3% career average). But, it’s difficult to say with any degree of certainty whether that’s a legitimate increase or just the product of official scoring bias.
Line drives don’t just “exist”-they’re a subjective judgment by the official scorer. And, as Brian Cartwright displayed last off-season, the rate at which line drives are coded can vary dramatically by stadium. It wouldn’t seem as though opponents are getting good wood on Nolasco, given the strength of his peripherals and plate discipline numbers.
And the extremely low stand rate? Nolasco’s career rate at stranding runners on base in 67.9 percent. That’s below the aforementioned average for starters. But even if Ricky struggles a little with runners on base, his 2009 line with ducks on the pond involves some poor luck:
Nolasco with men on base:
2006: 2.27 K/BB, .355 BABIP
2008: 2.74 K/BB, .268 BABIP
2009: 2.31 K/BB, .360 BABIP
He hasn’t performed drastically different with runners on, but his BABIP in such situations has fluctuated greatly.
In all likelihood, Nolasco’s sky-high BABIP will fall, and his strand rate will return from the nether regions. Despite the lousy-looking ERA, Ricky ranked among some of the best in the business in terms of fooling batters and limiting the free passes. Don’t hesitate to draft him in 2010-there’s nothing wrong with Nolasco.
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