2011 Marlins Season Preview: Nunez to close it out
By Michael Jong
Nolasco, ’08-’10PAK%UIBB%HR/FB%BABIPBases Empty141424.93.711.7.293Runners On90418.104.22.168.308Now that the rotation has been reviewed extensively, it is time to discuss the Marlins’ bullpen. As we all know, the team underwent an extensive bullpen remodeling this offseason, trading for three names who are certain to make the Opening Day roster and signing another to a free agent deal. Even though the bullpen is reinfused, the top of the card remains unchanged. Going into the 2011 season, Leo Nunez will be the team’s closer.
Closer: Leo Nunez
Nunez did not close the 2010 season as the closer for the Marlins, as the team turned to Clay Hensley at the tail end of the year. This was mostly due to Nunez’s late-season struggles, something to which I referred twice last season. What were those late season struggles about, and can we expect to see them again this season with Nunez once again the closer?
Pitch selection seems to be the primary concern in 2011 for Nunez. This season, the Marlins and Nunez are looking to improve on his slider and make it a viable third pitch. Apparently Nunez began shutting down the slider after a May 4 game during which he blew a one-run lead by allowing a solo home run to Aaron Rowand. Indeed Nunez dropped his slider usage from 6.1 percent to 1.9 percent after June. Furthermore, he had been previously using his slider in 10 percent of his pitches up to that May 4 game. So this change in slider usage was real. The only question remaining is whether this change could have caused Nunez’s season struggles, especially late in the year.
After looking at some of Nunez’s split data, my short answer is “yes and no.” I know, that’s a copout answer, but without looking at Pitch f/x data (I haven’t had a whole lot of time to start digging), I can’t conclude necessarily that Nunez’s decreased slider usage was the problem. However, there is data to support that assumption. Look at his splits against left-handers versus right-handers from last season as compared to 2009 and his career.
|Nunez vs LHH||PA||K%||UIBB%||HR/FB%||BABIP||GB%||FIP|
|Nunez vs RHH||PA||K%||UIBB%||HR/FB%||BABIP||GB%||FIP|
The first thing I noticed from the splits against lefties is that Nunez’s stats versus lefties have remained mostly stable through the last two seasons. This corresponds quite nicely with the obvious change in slider and changeup usage that Nunez exhibited since his arrival in Florida. Of course, it should not surprise us that he has had to use his changeup more often, as his increased usage corresponds to an increase in left handed batters faced as well; prior to 2009, Nunez faced left-handed hitters in 43.0 percent of his batters faced, but since 2009, he has faced lefties in 54.7 percent of batters faced.
Nevertheless, Nunez’s performance versus lefties has been pretty stable since 2009, with very similar strikeout and walk rates and BABIP. The major difference has been in the home runs allowed; in 2009 he may have been a bit unlucky, while in 2010, he was definitely a good deal lucky. The other major difference was in ground ball rate, but that should also be slightly anomalous; without a drastic improvement in Nunez’s changeup, it is unlikely that he would be forcing so many more grounders, as he is likely throwing changeups at a similar rate to lefties between 2009 and 2010.
The changes in performance are really best seen against righties, as expected. Since sliders seem to be the talking point for Nunez, check out the significant difference in sliders thrown against right handers when you compare 2009 and 2010 heat maps (courtesy of FanGraphs).
You might suspect that this difference would lead to general ineffectiveness versus righties, and if you measured Nunez’s success versus righties from the amount of hits he allowed, you would be right. That .398 BABIP looks atrocious and highly unexpected given that Nunez has the platoon advantage in this situation. However, it would make some sense when you consider his possible usage against righties. Changeups are less effective versus same-handed hitters, so Nunez has to drop his usage against them. Sliders would typically be the go-to pitch along with the fastball against same-handed hitters, but Nunez’s drop in slider usage forced him to depend on a suboptimal fastball / changeup combination against righties.
So there’s your problem right? I’d be inclined to believe that if the rest of his peripherals pointed to similar problems, but Nunez actually struck out more hitters in 2010 than he did in 2009 while using fewer sliders. I would have expected more problems beyond BABIP if his stuff and usage were an issue, but the evidence as of 2010 says nothing of the sort. With BABIP being the only real outlier, one has to think that part of the problem is simply bad luck. If his strikeouts are up and his walks remain similar, he has to be doing something right.
Having said all of that, would an increased slider usage be beneficial to Nunez? Based on early accounts, it sounds like the slider is looking good, and if it indeed is effective, then Nunez should add it to his arsenal. There’s nothing wrong with having a third pitch effective against right-handers, provided he can use it efficiently. In his previous stint in Kansas City, he may have been overusing it, but if the Marlins keep him from depending on the pitch too much in 2011 and beyond, it should be a big boost to Nunez’s game against righties. Last year’s usage was likely incorrect, but something between the 2009 and 2010 usage might be proper. Nunez is the rare breed of reliever who has effectiveness against opposite-handed hitters because of what appears to be an excellent changeup, so any improvement against righties should make him a strong closer candidate.
Projection: 70 IP, 1.1 WAR
This is a projection based on a 3.65 ERA. This is about where ZiPS has Nunez (3.66 ERA), while PECOTA has him at a 4.01 ERA. I would be fairly comfortable anywhere between those numbers, and that would yield a WAR range between 0.5 and 1.1 WAR. This also considers a Leverage Index (LI) of 2.0 on average for Nunez, which may be a bit high. Last season, Nunez faced an average LI of about 1.8, meaning the average plate appearance in which he pitched was contributed 1.8 times more towards a win or a loss than a normal plate appearance. However, at a similar LI, we would expect a marginal difference in WAR, so there isn’t a need to concern ourselves with that.
As the closer, we might expect Nunez to contribute one win over a replacement level player. But he may not be the only player who ends up closing for the Fish this season, and this afternoon, we will discuss Hensley, who may take ninth innings away from Nunez if the incumbent struggles.