Nolasco continues to confound


Ricky Nolasco is the Marlins’ second best starter. There is nothing that suggests otherwise anywhere else in his stats. This year, Nolasco’s strikeouts were down from his standout 2009 season, but he still punched out batters at a 22.1% rate. In the meantime, he has continued to prevent those batters from reaching via the walk, as he walked batters at just a 4.8% clip, almost matching his 2008 success.

If there was one thing that Nolasco struggled with again this year, it was in allowing actual runs. He impressed in his peripherals, as evidenced by his 3.86 FIP and 3.55 xFIP. However, his 4.51 ERA was once again not conducive of a successful campaign. And while last season showed a drastic difference in run prevention performance before and after his demotion, there is no such cutoff mark this season, as his ERA remained pretty solidly in the mid-4.00’s throughout much of the year.

So once again, Nolasco has confounded Marlins fans, coaches, and the front office with his erratic play. With Nolasco entering his third year or arbitration, an “improved” yet still disappointing performance this year means the Marlins will have to consider either extending him for the future or cutting ties with him soon enough. What will the Marlins do with the uncertainty that is Ricky Nolasco?

Another odd season

For three years running, Nolasco has done one thing extremely well: maintain a similar ratio/difference between strikeouts and walks. Check out the numbers:

2008: 4.43 K/BB, 16.5% K-BB% differential
2009: 4.43 K/BB,  19.2% K-BB% differential
2010: 4.45 K/BB, 17.1% K-BB% differential

However, these static numbers have yet to translate into static results, as his ERA fluctuated wildly despite solid xFIP/SIERA expected ERA marks.

2008: 3.52 ERA, 3.75 xFIP, 3.41 SIERA
2009: 5.06 ERA, 3.28 xFIP, 3.04 SIERA
2010: 4.51 ERA, 3.51 xFIP, 3.33 SIERA

The ERA predictors, most of which are dependent primarily on peripheral numbers and strip a lot luck/sequencing/defense out of the equation, still think very highly of Nolasco’s campaign. While last year, Nolasco’s high BABIP led to a lot of runs early in the season, in 2010 the problem has been more about a propensity of home runs. A high BABIP this year did not lead to fewer runners stranded (71.6% strand rate versus the league average 72.2%), but Nolasco allowed a career high home run rate of 3.7%, absurdly high even given his mediocre fly ball tendencies. The 12.4% HR/FB% is expected to go down to around his average of 11%, assisting in some of the difference.

The Stretch Factor

Before the start of 2010, I discussed the possibility that Nolasco simply struggles more from the stretch than he does from the windup, as evidenced by his significantly poorer performance with men on base. How did he do this season?

YearBases Empty xFIPMen on Base xFIP

The problem seems to persist, but it does appear to be less devastating than in previous years. Nolasco’s strikeout rates dipped and his walk rates rose, but the gap between the numbers seems much more palatable. However, I would still say that this is a problem worth looking into, and if I can find the time to investigate with what is now three seasons of Pitch f/x data, maybe we can find what is causing this difference. As of now, I would say this is the primary reason why Nolasco’s ERA has been decently higher than his FIP/xFIP/SIERA since 2009.

Contract extension?

There has been recent talk about a possible contract extension for Nolasco. He’ll be entering his third season of arbitration, but the team still has two more years of team control (including 2011), as he was a Super Two player. In a recent interview, Nolasco’s agent Matt Sosnick (yes, the Matt Sosnick of Josh Johnson fame from last year’s negotiations) said that the Marlins have the years down pat, but are about 20% off in terms of money. Don’t be surprised if that isn’t any more than the typical ploy the Fish have pulled in terms of starting off negotiations; there seems like a pretty good chance the Marlins can get a deal done.

The question is whether the team will want to complete such an offer as opposed to going year-to-year with Nolasco. After all, he is coming off a second straight year in which he has performed adequately, but certainly below average despite good peripherals. Can we blame all of that on defense and bad luck, or is there a skill component in the stretch issue about which the Marlins should be concerned? I implore Randy St. Claire and company looking into this matter of stretch versus windup, because it could be pivotal to our understanding of Nolasco’s game and vital to the team in terms of proper resource usage. Unfortunately, Nolasco is still recovering from his surgery and is likely still in rehab mode for the time being, so asking to investigate this issue right now is probably out of the question. Still, I think it is something the Marlins should look at in order to determine if there is a mechanical flaw or whether Nolasco can improve his pitch selection in those stretch situations.