Ricky Nolasco: Minnesota Twin-igma

Writer’s Note: Nolasco ranked 45th on Zach Sanders’ rankings of starting pitchers.

What qualifies as a veritable spending spree for the Minnesota Twins has left right-hander Ricky Nolasco searching for some warm clothes and a nice pair of mukluks, as he’ll spend at least the next four seasons with the club after signing just prior to the Thanksgiving Day weekend.

Nolasco has long been a pitcher who has underperformed his peripherals (4.37/3.76/3.75), and after 1300 career innings, it’s probably just time to take him for who he is rather than who he should be. Much like pitchers like Matt Cain can consistently outperform their peripherals, I think it’s probably less of a stretch to say pitchers can underperform them as well. After all, bad things compound themselves much more quickly and effectively than good things.

But if Nolasco is ever to reach the potential he has shown, Target Field is a pretty good place to do it. Nolasco’s career splits have favored left-handed hitters, with a higher ISO (167 to 150) and BB rate (7.0% to 3.6). Target Field however has proven to be a difficult place for left-handed hitters, at least when it comes to longballs (79 park factor where 100 is neutral, and lower is better for pitchers via StatCorner). And in that respect, it’ll be interesting to see how the right-hander attacks lefties with a much more neutralized threat of the longball.

I’d wager that walk rate will come down as he won’t have to be so fine with the strike zone, and with it perhaps the whiff rate would go up. It’s hard to say at this second.

It is worth noting that the new Marlins stadium played even bigger than Target Field this past season, when Nolasco posted his best ERA since 2008 with a 3.85 mark prior to his trade to the Dodgers. Dodger Stadium, on the other hand, was more accommodating to home runs, with doubles and triples easier to come by. That still makes it a bit strange that Nolasco’s HR/9 rate tumbled in his half season with the Dodgers, but obviously there wasn’t enough time for that to normalize, either.

Ultimately, the fact of the matter is that Target Field is a markedly better home park than the old Sun Life Stadium, where Nolasco pitched the bulk of his home innings prior to the new Marlins stadium opening. That should bode well for a flyball/tweener pitcher like Nolasco.

In fact, it should be noted that Nolasco seems to be trending more towards a groundball proclivity, which is odd since two of the last three years — and going into the future — have been spent in the best pitcher’s parks he’ll probably ever play in. But I digress.

The things that Nolasco has going for him for you the fantasy owner are similar to what endeared him to the Twins.

First of all, Nolasco will give you innings. In five of the past six seasons, Nolasco has thrown 180 or more innings, eclipsing 200 twice and coming within an eyelash in one other season. For you, that stability makes for a nice later round flier, and for the Twins, that means no more starting guys like P.J. Walters and Andrew Albers in a pinch. That sort of predictability is something teams like, and pay for on the free agent market. It’s sort of inexplicable, really.

But the other thing that Nolasco does that is rather nice is that he gets strikeouts. And while fantasy owners will like that for obvious reasons, it also signifies a seismic shift in thinking for the Twins, who were historically bad when it came to strikeouts in 2013. Since 2000, only nine teams fanned fewer per 9 than the Twins did in 2013 (4.93). All of them came before 2006, which is noteworthy only because of the strikeout spike which has taken place in the past few years. That leaves the Twins moving in a distinct opposite direction.

And the names of teams on that list are ugly. Two early 2000s Tigers teams, a host of Royals’ clubs, and a few stragglers such as the 2000 Angels and the 2003 Rockies. It’s truly rarified air to fan fewer than five per 9, and the Twins set out to do something about it.

What’s interesting about Nolasco is that he does it as a right-hander with a 90 mph fastball that quite frankly isn’t very good. Last year, Nolasco threw 770 four seamers, and hitters teed off to the tune of .338/.408/.487. It was worse in 2012 (.326/.376/.535).

Luckily in both years Nolasco threw more sliders than fastballs, and his slider is pretty outstanding. In 2012, his slider got a swinging strike rate of 15.6%, and a triple-slash of .250/.287/.375. In 2013, it was even better (18.8%, .195/.220/.307).

To me, Nolasco’s usage patterns of his pitches show that he’s coming to grips with what works for him and what doesn’t as he eclipses 30 years of age. The groundball tendency can be termed as nothing but beneficial, and with the move to Target Field, he can afford to slide back to his old ways if he deems necessary. From a real-life standpoint, I think it’s a solid move for a team starved for pitching depth. From a fantasy standpoint, I think there’s still a little glimmer of hope that he can start trending back towards those FIPs.

I think the ceiling here could be high-20s to low-30s. I don’t think it’s ultra likely he’ll reach those ceilings, but this could be a very nice landing spot for Nolasco and his owners.

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In addition to Rotographs, Warne writes about the Minnesota Twins for The Athletic and is a sportswriter for Sportradar U.S. in downtown Minneapolis. Follow him on Twitter @Brandon_Warne, or feel free to email him to do podcasts or for any old reason at brandon.r.warne@gmail-dot-com

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Nolasco has consistently underperformed his FIP for a reason. His peripherals show he is substantially worse out of the stretch.

Anatomy of FIP Underperformer