Yesterday, there was a story that was completely overshadowed by Strasburg’s 19-batter AARP-grade retirement party and Harper’s casual bomb-flinging. It’s the story about how trades, fire sales, injuries and circumstances put 10-year veteran Ricky Nolasco at the front of the Marlins’ rotation, and how that worked at the start of the 2013 season.
Nolasco has been a Marlin since 2006, and with the exception of a tuneup year in the minors in 2007 and a 15-game rehab stint in 2009, a fixture in the rotation. He’s never been a front-of-the-rotation guy, but has been a 3-4 hole guy with dependable skills. The roster detonation and subsequent clearance sale during the off-season saw the ouster of ace Josh Johnson and the super-predictable Mark Buehrle, as well as no. 2 man Anibal Sanchez. Shoulder problems with replacements Nathan Eovaldi and Henderson Alvarez coupled with the surprisingly bad spring from Jacob Turner suddenly thrust Nolasco into the spotlight as the Top Arm of the Fish.
Problem is, he’s not an ace, and the closest he came was in 2009, when he had a nearly 25% strikeout percentage(9.49 K/9) and posted a 4.12 WAR. Last year, during the Season That Shall No Longer Be Mentioned, he was down to a shade under 6 K/9 and posted a strikeout rate of 15%, netting him a WAR of 2.1. Good, but not great. Overall, his numbers slid a bit over the last couple of seasons.
But a sliding pitcher is not what Marlins fans saw on opening day. What they saw was a mature, confident pitcher with a six-pitch arsenal that the current crop of Cy Young candidates, winners, and near-misses can only look at with envy. He’s got a low-90’s fastball, an 0-2 curve and a 0-0 or 3-2 curve, a cutter, a changeup, and a slider. Each of those pitches is backed with plenty of practice and an above-average ability to put the pitches where he wants them to go.
Nolasco isn’t a phenom with lightning in his shoulder. He’s a crafty guy that studies his batters and trains his pitches in the fine art of bat avoidance. For the most part, it worked well for him yesterday. Unfortunately for Mr. Nolasco, Davey Johnson spoke with Bryce Harper during the spring, and mentioned that his hitting might improve if he watched a little film of the pitchers he would face. Harper, far from the idiot asshat that the non-Washington press has tried to make him out to be, took his manager’s words to heart, and exploited a weakness he found. Twice.
Harper noticed that on a 1-0 and 3-2 count, Ricky most often throws a curveball or a slider. With that knowledge in the front of his mind, he started dropping bombs. With those two notable exceptions, Nolasco allowed only one other hit and two walks during his six-inning start. He struck out Adam LaRoche and Jayson Werth one time each, and completely gollywoggled Ryan Zimmerman, sending him back to the dugout three times.
For a back-of-the-rotation guy shoved into the Opening Day spotlight, Ricky did a damn good job yesterday. I hope it’s a pattern that emerges over the course of the season.