Clone Wars: Justin Verlander and Ricky Nolasco

Even people who don’t trust statistical analysis like FIP and xFIP know that Ricky Nolasco was not as bad as his 2009 ERA suggests. The question though is how good can he be once his numbers regress to the mean? I would like to suggest that his skills took the same leap in 2009 as Justin Verlander, but poor BABIP and LOB% caused the poor outcomes. Heading into 2010 this comparison might help us find out how good Nolasco will be.

           Record  ERA    K     BB   WHIP  K/9   BB/9  K/BB   GB%  xFIP
Verlander  19-9    3.45   269    63  1.18 10.09  2.36  4.27   36%  3.26
Nolasco    13-9    5.06   195    44  1.25  9.49  2.14  4.43 38.3%  3.28

If you hold your thumb over the ERA and take the number of innings pitched into account you’re looking at a very solid matchup. From their strikeouts to walks to ground balls they could have been essentially the same pitcher in 2009. Looking here you can see Verlander even dealt with some poor luck of his own. If they were so close, though, what made the difference and will it happen again in 2010?

Team defense

MLB: JUL 11 Marlins v Dodgers
July 11, 2008: Florida Marlins pitcher Ricky Nolasco throws during a game against the Los Angeles Dodgers in Los Angeles, Ca on Saturday, July 11, 2008. (Icon/SMI)

First up is something the pitchers can’t control. Their team defense was something that separates them and contributed to their ERA difference. Looking at UZR/150 for their teams, the Tigers had a 7.2 and the Marlins had a poor -3.4. That didn’t really help Verlander’s BABIP, which finished at .328, but did maintain a 72% LOB. On the other hand, the defense behind Nolasco led to a high BABIP at .336 and a low LOB% at 61%.

So the defense did have some effect on this comparison in 2009, but will it continue next year? It’s possible there ares some positives for the Marlins as they are looking to move Dan Uggla and have already moved Jeremy Hermida. The two were poor defenders and an upgrade over them would be a positive for Nolasco. At the same time, Verlander is going to lose Placido Polanco next year; he was arguably the best defender on the Tigers.

Trying to put a projection on defense would be foolish, but with a few proper moves this could be a nonfactor for Nolasco in 2010 and make him more competitive.

Regression to the mean

Neither pitcher here had ever posted strikeout rates over 8.20 at the major league level and suddenly in 2009 they both passed nearly 9.50 K/9. That seems like something that is headed for a decline next year, but how far is the question. Both have career averages around 7.9-8 and that is where we should assume they will regress toward. Looking at Bill James’ numbers he thinks both will be around 8.30 next year making both still impressive strikeout pitchers.

On the other hand, walk rate is something we might assume Nolasco will be better in next year. His career rate is 2.19, making his 2.14 this year not that surprising. Verlander, meanwhile, has a career rate of 3.02. That would make it a strong possibility that Verlander falls some in 2010 with his walk rate.

If we follow these expected numbers of regression, we can see that Nolasco is the stronger candidate to post better K/BB numbers in 2010. This doesn’t guarantee he is the better pitcher, but it sure doesn’t hurt.

Draft values

As close as these guys are, you can see how much value you could gain by waiting on Verlander and grabbing Nolasco. Since both should see a small amount of regression in their underlying numbers you might even see a better year from Nolasco. Currently at MockDraftCentral you can see Verlander is being selected around the 46 pick while Nolasco is going around 106. That is anywhere from three to four rounds later depending on your league size and well worth the wait.

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