Nolasco, Stretch vs. Windup 2: The Pitch f/x Returns

(Warning: Somewhat long post, with a lot of graphs. Enjoy at your peril.)

Since I picked up this topic regarding Ricky Nolasco in 2009 in the stretch versus the windup, I have been unable to drop it. A few weeks back, I noticed that he did have some problems out of the stretch and that they were abnormal compared to the league. On the advice of friend of the Maniac VEP (Nick Steiner over at THT, in case you were wondering; go read his stuff, by the way), I decided to look at Nolasco’s work between his pitches with runners on base and with bases empty to see if there were significant changes in his selection, approach, stuff, or location. Let’s dive right in to the data and charts.

The Setup

Once again, I’m working with the 2009 data for Nolasco, encompassing a total of 1383 pitches against only right handed hitters. I did this to eliminate any issues with dealing with the platoon split/advantage, so we’re looking currently at only situations in which Nolasco has the platoon advantage. I may look into the left handed numbers (which have more samples of pitches) later. I split that data up into the pitches thrown with the bases empty and with runners on. There were 767 pitches thrown with the bases empty and 616 pitches with runners on. This will stand as the difference between pitching out of the windup (bases empty) or the stretch (runners on).

Selection

The pitch selections for each group were the first thing I thought to look for.

Pitch Type % thrown, windup % thrown, stretch
FF 48.2% 55.2%
SL 32.5% 32.6%
CU 17.6% 9.9%
CH 1.7% 2.2%

The one thing that immediately stands out here is the change in the usage of the fastball. Nolasco threw 341 fastballs with runners on, while throwing only 370 int he windup despite throwing 150 more pitches in the latter setup. The fastballs came almost directly at the cost of the curveball, as the drop in curveball usage almost exactly matches the rise in fastball use.

Is this the beginning of a signficant problem? Well, I don’t know if we can say that. Consider that most pitchers will throw more fastballs and less slow breaking pitches with runners on in an attempt to prevent runners from taking extra bases. This could just be the result of Nolasco attempting to hold runners by use of his fastball. Note how the other two usages remain remarkably similar, particularly the slider usage.

However, this does not mean that the problem couldn’t still lie with the selection. FanGraphs’ pitch run values for the last few seasons suggest that Nolasco’s fastball may be less than ideal. If this is true (and those pitch run values are not necessarily indicative of poor stuff necessarily), this could be part of the problem.

Stuff

First, I’ll present Nolasco’s stuff with the bases empty.

Pitch Type Velocity (mph) H-Break (in) V-Break
FF 92.0 -4.7 10.0
SL 83.9 1.9 1.2
CU 76.8 6.1 -6.1
CH 85.1 -6.8 2.6

There’s nothing outrageous about this data. I would not take anything away from the changeup, as he only threw 13 to righties in this group.

Compare this to the data with runners on.

Pitch Type Velocity (mph) H-Break (in) V-Break
FF 91.7 -4.8 9.7
SL 83.5 1.7 0.9
CU 77.7 5.6 -5.3
CH 85.3 -6.5 3.9

The differences in the raw stuff between the two groups is not very telling. The fastballs and sliders with runners on dipped a bit more, but there was no major change for horizontal break for either pitch between the two groups. You’ll note that in both groups the curveball is not very well centered in a certain area, so I wouldn’t take much out of that data as well. The one thing I can tell is that the spread of the pitches with bases empty is lower than the spread of the pitches with runners on. You could tell by comparing both graphs certainly, and checking the standard deviations of each of the horizontal and vertical breaks of the pitches confirms that. The pitches with runners had more horizontal spread. Could that be something that was affecting the control of these pitches?

Approach

Next, I wanted to take a look at Nolasco’s approach in a similar fashion that Steiner did in these two articles regarding A.J. Burnett and Jarrod Washburn. To start, I wanted to show a stat I thought was quite surprising.

Ricky Nolasco, First Strike% w/Bases Empty: 65.3%
Ricky Nolasco, First Strike% w/Runners On: 53.1%

This is a pretty glaring difference in numbers. This does not include balls in play, which FanGraphs’ F-Strike% does. Had I included balls in play, the numbers each go up a bit, to 68.4% with bases empty versus 60.1% with runners on. Still, the difference of eight percent is very intriguing. FG’s league average value is 58.9% for 2009. These numbers should be expected to be higher given the fact that Nolasco faces the platoon advantage here, but the 68% still gets to me.

Still, this data could be due not necessarily to Nolasco’s ability to put the ball in the strike zone, but perhaps rather to the pitcher’s own mishaps. Let’s take a look at this data graphically.

- In-Zone%, wide In-Zone%
Bases Empty 71.6% 64.2%
Runners On 67.1% 61.1%

Using both a wide zone (1 ft to either side of the center of home plate, 24 in wide) and a more normal zone (0.85 ft to either side, 20 in wide), a similar differential of three to four percent was witnessed between first pitches in the zone when the bases were empty compared to when runners were on. That difference is half of the difference we witnessed in first-strike%. Still, a four percent difference would still be significant given the run swing between a first pitch strike and a first pitch ball.

Now, taking a cue from Nick, I took a look at Nolasco’s pitch selection based on count. Instead of breaking down his selection based on each count, I decided to take a look at his selection on neutral, pitcher’s, and hitter’s counts, based on the run values found in this THT article by esteemed Pitch f/x guru John Walsh. The categories consider the following counts:

Neutral: 0-0, 1-0, 1-1, 2-1
Hitter’s: 2-0, 3-0, 3-1, 3-2
Pitcher’s: 0-1, 0-2, 1-2, 2-2

The borders between the run values found by Walsh were not so clear that I could break them down with certainty into these categories, but these do make sense intuitively, so I don’t think the method is far off. Here’s the breakdown.

Pitch Type % thrown, Neutral % thrown, Hitter’s % thrown, Pitcher’s
FF 50.6% 80.4% 40.8%
SL 36.5% 19.6% 30.4%
CU 12.1% 0.0% 25.9%
CH 0.8% 0.0% 2.8%
Total 46.4% 7.3% 46.3%

Compare that with the numbers with runners on.

Pitch Type % thrown, Neutral % thrown, Hitter’s % thrown, Pitcher’s
FF 54.2% 67.2% 54.0%
SL 36.5% 32.8% 26.0%
CU 7.5% 0.0% 16.7%
CH 1.8% 0.0% 3.3%
Total 54.0% 11.0% 35.0%

These charts/numbers seem pretty interesting. One major thing I noticed immediately is that Nolasco is running into more hitter’s counts and a large number of fewer pitcher’s counts with runners on. In looking at neutral count pitches outside of first pitches (that is, pitches in 1-0, 1-1, and 2-1 counts), there was a five percent uptick in those thrown with runners on compared to those thrown with the bases empty. Some of that can be accounted for by his drastic difference in first-strike percentage; the 0-1 counts all go into the pitcher’s bin, while the 1-0 counts go into the neutral bin, so those extra first-pitch balls that Nolasco was throwing with runners on added to his neutral count.

The other thing to note is that the usage of the fastball goes somewhat against what I had figured. In neutral counts, Nolasco threw the fastball 50.6% of the time, a tad higher than his overall average. In comparison, Nolasco threw the fastball 54.2% of the time in neutral counts with runners on, a good sized increase, but not a drastic one. However, in pitcher’s counts, Nolasco’s usage differed pretty starkly. With the bases empty, Nolasco opted for more breaking balls, throwing his curve and slider a combined 56% of the time. However, with runners on, Nolasco maintained a heavy usage of his fastball, at 54%, almost the same as his neutral count rate. He added use of the curve in the place of slider usage with runners on in those pitcher’s counts.

What does this mean? My next step will be to take a look at the locations both in these three categories and in two-strike counts to see whether Nolasco’s problem has been locating his pitches. But I imagine that the increased use of his fastball over his better breaking pitches may have something to do with his declining strikeout rates. I expected this problem to go down a bit when we reach two strikes, but it does not really seem like that’s the case. I can’t draw any conclusions just yet, but I think we may be seeing a bit more of what could be the problem.F

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