2011 Marlins Season Preview: Nolasco, the Enigma
By Michael Jong
Here at Marlin Maniac, we (and by that I mean me as lead blogger) strive to get you the best Marlins coverage on the planet. Unfortunately, my planet has been swamped with school work recently, and that has sidetracked our daily Marlins season preview series just a tad. Hopefully, we can get back on track today in our discussion of our second starter in the rotation, Ricky Nolasco.
I have labeled Nolasco “the Enigma” here for obvious reasons. Marlins fans are well aware of the tale of how Nolasco “broke out” in 2008, throwing 212 1/3 innings to the tune of a 3.52 ERA, only to follow that season up with one of the most perplexing pitching seasons of all time in 2009. Nolasco’s 185 innings of 5.06 ERA were astonishing not just because of the bad start which precipitated the season results (ERA over 9.00 into June) but also how drastically different that performance was to his strong 3.35 FIP, the lowest of his career. In 2010, more of the same problems persisted, with yet again a significant difference between Nolasco’s FIP and ERA.
We’ve heard various clues about what those problems could be. I’ve mentioned a few times on this blog that his issues with runners on base could potentially be real. Let’s reiterate them here once more:
The results from the past three seasons are quite puzzling. The strikeout and unintentional walk rates appear to be the most drastic differences among the numbers shown here. The BABIP comes out to a difference of 15 hits over 1000 balls in play, and the home run rate has actually decreased with runners on compared to with the bases empty.
My pet theory for Nolasco’s struggles with runners on actually explains this phenomenon quite well. Looking into Nolasco’s 2009 pitches in both situations, it did appear as if he was less aggressive with his stuff, particularly his fastball, when runners were on base. Rather than attacking the zone as is his usual plan, Nolasco pitched closer to the edges, trying to nibble at the zone instead. You can clearly see how a plan of nibbling at the zone rather than attacking it directly would lead to a decrease in strikeouts and increase in walks. Even the home runs are actually decently explained as well; hitters should be getting less strong contact on pitches on the edges of the zone rather than on those closer to the center of the plate, which would lead to fewer home runs as well.
Having said that, that idea is just a conjecture based on my single-season analysis and the three-year sample that we have between 2008 and 2010. Once I have some time on my hands, I am excited to get my hands on Pitch f/x data between that same time period to see how exactly Nolasco has pitched during that time period, but for now I am comfortable with my educated guess. How many runs can such a difference in performance cost over a season? Let’s compare these three-year averages versus Nolasco’s overall average rates over the same time period; in other words, how much worse is Nolasco in terms of runs with runners on base when compared to his overall performance?
And here we get to a final bit of interesting info. According to this analysis, in 300 PA with runners on, we would expect that Nolasco would only allow just about 1.5 runs more by pitching the way he has in this three year sample than if he had pitched as well as he did overall. Most of the loss in run prevention is in the drop in strikeouts, but that drop in whiffs is equalized by the increased stinginess against home runs. If all these totals were real, we’d expect Nolasco to barely give up any more runs than he normally would. Surprisingly, the data actually matches that prediction; Nolasco’s only season in which his FIP was higher with runners on than with the bases empty was in that horrific 2009.
It doesn’t mean that Nolasco isn’t likely a worse pitcher with runners on or that there isn’t a way to fix any potential problems with his pitch selection in that situation. It simply means that perhaps Nolasco does pitch differently, but the results are mostly the same, and what we saw in 2009 and 2010 was, once again, a simple matter of bad luck in stranding runners. Having said that, what can we expect in 2011?
Projection: 190 IP, 2.8 WAR
Almost two months back, I went over the various pitchers on the Marlins and came up with preliminary projections. The result was much of what I expected, with Nolasco posting an ERA in the 4.00 region (4.03 ERA projected from that article) and posting around a 3.0 WAR season. Those numbers all sound good for a guy who hasn’t been at that level for two years now, but the split between his FIP and ERA has to be a decent bit luck driven and should regress heading into 2011. Is a 3.0 WAR year enough from a pitcher to whom te team has committed $26.5M over the next three years? It is when you consider the prices for that sort of production now (accounts have the value of one WAR equal to $4.5 – 5M). Marlins fans should be in for a decent season from Nolasco.