Ricky Nolasco and the long ball dilemma

Despite an off-season dominated by talks of Cliff Lee “mystery teams” and speculation on which surrounding Zack Greinke would approve if traded, the amount of quality pitching deemed available has been rather thin. Just ask the Yankees and despite their seemingly unlimited capital the market has turned a bit against their favor as more teams are hoarding young quality pitching and the few made available who can demand above-market figures seem to have ranked comfort over pure dollars.

Before this week, Florida’s perennial No. 2 starter, Ricky Nolasco, drew a lot of interest from teams who lost out on the Lee and Greinke sweepstakes. It’s obvious many teams were hoping to “buy low” on Nolasco, but the Marlins figured their best option was to stand pat and come to terms on a three-year deal worth $26.5 million. By all accounts it’s a deal certainly back loaded with various incentives but it does allow the Marlins to effectively control a major piece of their rotation with minimal risk.

Since Nolasco turned a few heads after his 2008 “breakout” season where he compiled a 15-8 record with a 3.52 ERA, he also posted an excellent 7.88 strikeout rate (K/9) with an even more impressive 1.78 walk rate (BB/9) in a little over 212 innings pitched – all at the bonus age of 25.

According to stats pulled from Fangraphs, here are a few basic ones to mull over:

Season K/9 BB/9 O-Swing% Contact%
2008 7.88 1.78 28.6 79.3
2009 9.49 2.14 29.3 78.2
2010 8.39 1.88 33.1 77.9

Looking at this neat handful we can see that Nolasco has struck out his fair share of batters while keeping his walks consistently low. He has also shown positive trends in getting opposing hitters to swing more often at pitches outside the strike zone along with seeing a steady decrease in contact. Comparing this to major league averages, these numbers all rank as being above average and should correlate into the stats needed to be a very successful pitcher; however here a few more stats to look over:

2008 3.52 3.77 3.75
2009 5.06 3.35 3.28
2010 4.51 3.86 3.55

The above numbers seem to be the obvious stats one throws out when talking about Nolasco and his tendency to be “unlucky.” When one looks at a healthy pitcher with solid peripherals hounded by an abnormally high ERA we can safely assume his FIP will be much lower and a fair indicator of whether he over- or underperformed. xFIP, on the other hand, was created (as an experiment) by our own Dave Studenmund to help predict future production by normalizing an overall opponent’s home run rate.

• I know FIP and xFIP calculations have been kicked around quite frequently but if any new readers are interested in a quick primer or have questions, I suggest you look here.

Looking over the wide differential between Nolasco’s ERA and FIP we can see he has been hounded by a higher than average BABIP and fluctuating strand rate:

2008 0.284 75.70%
2009 0.336 61%
2010 0.328 71.60%

League average BABIP tends to hover around .290 to .300 depending on the season. In 2008, Nolasco scored slightly below average which tends to be normal for pitchers who score breakout seasons as well as scoring a strand rate a few notches higher than the average 72 percent we find in many calculations.

In 2009, things took a weird turn. As we saw above, his ERA shot up to an embarrassing level yet his periphs still looked solid – most of us notched this up to a few bad starts and easily pointed to his high BABIP and low strand and figured he would right the ship in 2010 (and we, as fantasy players, would wait in the weeds and pounce on Nolasco in the later rounds and reap the rewards later – assuming our opponents aren’t privy and reading the same information we are).

Unfortunately, Nolasco was a bit frustrating last season, especially in the first half where he allowed 19 home runs in 96.2 innings; however, he still posted a very healthy K/BB ratio of 4.27 during that troubling span.

Before we break down each of Nolasco’s seasons, let’s begin by showing a breakdown of his repertoire since 2008:

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Season Fastball Curveball Slider Cutter Changeup
2008 50.60% 26.40% 17.50% 0.00% 5.20%
2009 49.10% 15.50% 23.80% 0.00% 9.00%
2010 40.30% 15.70% 14.90% 10.20% 9.40%

According to the website texasleaguers.com, Nolasco throws primarily a four-seam fastball which, as a general pitch, tends to lack any effective break but is used mostly for its velocity. However, his four-seamer wouldn’t qualify as overpowering since its average velocity registers at about 91 mph although it has hit 96 mph on a few very rare occasions.

Looking at his range of pitches, we can see that Nolasco in 2010 introduced a cut fastball while decreasing the use of his four-seamer and slider.

During the first three months of the 2010 season when gopher-itis struck, Nolasco threw almost the same percentage of pitches:

First-Half Fastball Curveball Slider Cutter Changeup
2010 41.80% 15.40% 11.50% 12.20% 10.80%

My first thoughts: after throwing his slider so frequently it’s interesting that he would decrease this offering especially with fangraphs rating his 2009 slider so favorably. Also of interest is the fact that right-handed hitters seemed to have caused the most damage during these first three months hitting 13 of those 19 home runs.

Next, let’s take a look how each side of the plate has matched against Nolasco in his career:

Lefty 0.271 0.322 0.446 0.768 0.316 20.70% 41.90% 37.40% 12.40%
Righty 0.255 0.291 0.431 0.721 0.313 19.30% 35.80% 44.90% 10.30%

Nothing looks too out of the ordinary, being a right-handed pitcher it’s expected that lefties would hit a slightly higher clip which also takes into account the times Nolasco would be at a disadvantage when he must face the occasional lefty platoon batter. Yet these splits don’t show much of a gap except for maybe a few more fly balls and less groundballs hit by righties… that’s really about it.

However, if you need Nolasco to strike someone out or show better command, chances are he’ll be a bit more successful against righties:

Batter K/9 BB/9 K/BB
Lefty 7.46 2.7 2.76
Righty 8.6 1.52 5.66

Struggles with the long ball are nothing new, in his career Nolasco has posted a HR/9 of 1.19, 1.12 and 1.37 in each season since 2008. His home run per fly ball rate has also seen a slight rise each season from 10.6 percent in ’08 to 11 percent in ’09 to 12.4 percent last season. Looking at how much HR/FB rates can fluctuate for most pitchers each season, I don’t give these numbers too much attention especially with these rates around average in comparison.

However, it should be noted that some interesting trend splits in development:

Season HR/9 vs. LHH HR/9 vs. RHH
2008 1.56 0.74
2009 1.07 1.18
2010 0.94 1.78

It must be acknowledged that we are still dealing with some small sample sizes especially when we look at Nolasco’s first/second half splits. I know I sounded the alarm on Nolasco and last season’s horrible HR rate in the first half, especially against righties, but looking over his prior two seasons:

Season HRs First Half HRs Second Half
2008 16 12
2009 12 11
2010 20 4

The only overwhelming gap we see is his 2010 split but we must also remember that Nolasco only pitched in 47 innings during the second half. Nolasco was promptly shut down in August after team doctors discovered he had a torn meniscus in his right knee. Since that time, he has had surgery and officials have called it successful but the injury and loss of playing time does limit what we kind of data we could have expected in terms of Nolasco’s long ball dilemma last season.

Looking over next season’s projections, our own THT Forecasts does predict the following:

165 IP, 4.09 ERA, 7.9 K/9, 2.0 BB/9, 1.3 HR/9

That seems to be about right compared to other current projections, give or take a few numbers off his innings pitched and ERA. However, I still feel that the final piece of the puzzle for Nolasco is his high home run rate. If he can figure that out does he become elite?

According to Greg Rybarczyk’s research into park factors for our 2011 Hardball Times Annual, Sun Life Stadium ranks 15th and is seen as mostly neutral but can depress its share of home runs especially due to its spacious center to right field areas. It’s also “a great place for right-handed pitchers.”

Obviously more research must done in order to fully understand Nolasco’s perpetual ERA-FIP differential and obviously other factors like pitch counts, batted ball distance, team defense along with prior research looking at Nolasco’s wind-up vs the stretch data. This has been an issue frequently brought up and, so far, I’ve found Michael Jong’s study using 2009 data to be the most compelling – in the next few weeks I’m hoping to continue to build upon this and see what is it that could be causing Ricky Nolasco to be so dominant on one level yet so deficient in others.

Stay tuned.

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Pretty cool read Vince. I’ll definitely look forward to your further discussion of this subject as I’m a Nolasco owner in my keeper league. Definitely glad to see him re-up with the Marlins though, in that ballpark.

Vince Caramela
Vince Caramela
Thanks guys, I noticed that other f/x sites all have slightly different info regarding Nolasco’s pitch distribution (even fangraphs listed him as not throwing a single cut fastball in all of 2010). Thanks for the tip about the curve/slider usage of the years, in my next piece I definitely want to look at his pitch types and how it’s used in various counts and what has worked/failed, etc. It’s funny when I was gathering up info earlier this week my plan was to do a quick/informative piece but the more I looked and read I decided that Nolasco’s positives/negatives are… Read more »
Josh Smolow
Josh Smolow

RedSoxFan is probably correct….MLBAM’s pitch classifications, which TexasLeaguers uses, is poor at distinguishing cutters from other pitches (generally sliders, but occasionally fastballs). 

The MLBAM team probably made an adjustment in 2010 which resulted in the cutter showing up, rather than this being a genuine new pitch.

Red Sox Talk
Red Sox Talk
Hey Vince, interesting article. In 2010, the number of sliders decreased but the number of cutters increased correspondingly, i.e. add the % of sliders and cutters, and you basically arrive at his 2009 slider percentage. My guess is that PITCHf/x is classifying some of his sliders as cutters now (they are pretty similar pitches). They make tweaks every year, and 2009-2010 was an especially big year for that. As an example, a lot of pitchers who were two-seam only guys suddenly looked like they were mixing in a four-seamer as well, even though they were not doing anything differently. The… Read more »
John K
John K

The 2010 pitch types don’t sum to 100%.  Are 10% of his pitches unclassifiable or something?

Vince Caramela
Vince Caramela

Regarding his pitch types, I only displayed his five most frequently used pitches.  The rest fall under unknown or the occasional spilt-finger or two-seamer according to texasleaguers.com for 2010.