There are some things that it makes sense to hold on to. A collector’s item, perhaps, that’s gaining value every year. Your first childhood teddy bear, or some family heirloom. A new car you literally just bought. Then there’s Ricky Nolasco, of the 2013 Miami Marlins. Nolasco is about as obvious as trade bait gets. At its simplest, you could just refer to Nolasco as the expensive Marlin. He’s a free-agent-to-be, and the team around him is terrible, and it’s not like people show up to the ballpark in droves specifically to watch Ricky Nolasco pitch. Contending teams want starting pitchers, and Nolasco’s an available starting pitcher, and there’s a non-zero chance he’s traded by the time this very post is published. It’s going to happen, and it’s going to happen soon, by the sounds of things. The Marlins have nothing to gain by holding on to him, and they’re sure as hell not going to issue him a qualifying offer.
So Nolasco’s going to get moved, which means people — fans of contending teams — are going to be curious about Ricky Nolasco. What’s this guy’s deal? Here’s where we begin: Ricky Nolasco, as a starting pitcher, is fine. That’s the best, most accurate label I can give him. The question is how fine; is he more like a 3 who can look like a 2, or is he more like a 4 who can look like a 3? This is what’s most worth examining.
At writing, Nolasco is the owner of a 97 ERA- and a 93 FIP-. You know those numbers — that’s basically just an ERA measurement and an FIP measurement, adjusted for park. For the sake of comparison, we find CC Sabathia at 98 and 96, respectively. Give Nolasco a few extra homers and he’s somewhere on the order of average. The point is that the 2013 version of Nolasco seems to be helpful, so long as you don’t think of him as an ace. And teams on the market can’t be looking for aces, because the aces aren’t really out there. Rotation depth is important, too.
For Nolasco, this is something of a rebound. It’s not that he was dreadful a year ago, but he’s reversed a terrifying trend. I remember seeing buyer-beware articles about Nolasco in 2012, and this graph explains why:
Nolasco’s strikeouts were tumbling, and last season his rate was under four-fifths the NL starter average. This year, he’s basically on the average mark, worse than his peak but better than his valley. To whatever extent that it’s not all about strikeouts, it’s a lot about strikeouts, so Nolasco has done well to rescue his value by rescuing his ability to miss a bat here and there.
It seems to have nothing to do with Nolasco’s pitch velocities. Likewise, it seems to have nothing to do with Nolasco’s pitch-mixing, not that we can know that for sure. Why might the strikeouts be back up? Interestingly, Nolasco’s strikeout rate against righties has gotten a little worse. It’s gone down every year from 2009. But against lefties, Nolasco’s rate is back around where it was in 2010.
Nolasco K% vs. lefty hitters
Courtesy of Texas Leaguers, we can look at Nolasco’s release points. It seems like he made a change around last August:
That’s Nolasco from April 2010 through July 2012. Here’s Nolasco since August 2012:
Everything’s shifted more toward the first-base side of the rubber. If you prefer visuals, by which I mean screengrabs, here’s Nolasco before the change, and then after it:
He’s moved over on the mound, and if the PITCHf/x data is to be believed, it’s like this all the time now. Nolasco’s right arm is still closer to third base than first base, but the gap’s been reduced, giving hitters a different look and potentially allowing Nolasco to work the zone differently. One can imagine this somewhat leveling out his previous platoon split, not entirely, but partially. The correlation, at least, is there.
Nolasco contact rate vs. lefty hitters
Nolasco contact rate vs. righty hitters
So, all right. There was a concern that Nolasco was declining, and now he’s been having a pretty good season. But there was another concern with Nolasco, too. Between 2006-2012, he posted a 92 FIP-, same as Mat Latos. But he posted a 109 ERA-, same as Armando Galarraga and Mike Pelfrey. The difference between the two was 17, and among pitchers with at least 400 innings, only three differences were bigger. Nolasco seemed to be a guy who’d “pitch worse” than his peripherals, and ultimately the point is to prevent runs.
When a guy’s ERA doesn’t match his FIP for a year, usually we don’t mind it. We blame it on sequencing or coincidence. Two years, still, it can be noise. But between 2006-2012, Nolasco threw more than 1,100 innings, which is a pretty enormous sample size. There was reason to believe this was a serious problem.
It wasn’t really about pitching with runners on base, at least not entirely. Nolasco’s strikeouts went down with runners on, but the same went for most. Nolasco’s walks went up with runners on, but the same went for most. Nolasco’s BABIP stayed more or less the same. Anyway, long story short, Nolasco before didn’t match his peripherals. This year his ERA and his FIP are more or less identical. Where, for most pitchers, we’d see that as normal, for Nolasco we have to wonder.
But I’m going to show you a chart. I looked at guys who threw at least 400 innings between 2006-2011, then I calculated the difference between their ERA- and their FIP-. Then I looked at guys who threw at least 100 innings in 2012, calculating the same difference. I isolated the pitchers in both pools, yielding a sample size of 89. Here’s a plot of those ERA- and FIP- differences:
There’s a relationship, but it appears to be weak. Even over a big sample size, assumptions of a stat gap “true talent” have to be heavily regressed. Nolasco, sure, had a difference of 17 between 2006-2011, and a difference of 14 in 2012. But Homer Bailey dropped from 13 to -9. Brandon Morrow dropped from 12 to -15. Chris Capuano dropped from 8 to -7. It would be safe to assume that Ricky Nolasco probably has a higher true-talent ERA than true-talent FIP. But the difference is probably much smaller than what we observe from his track record.
This all got very complicated, on the way to supporting that Ricky Nolasco is a fine starting pitcher who could continue to be a fine starting pitcher on a different team for a few months. He’s rebounded, possibly thanks to a mechanical adjustment, and even if he doesn’t prevent runs quite as well as his peripherals might suggest, he’s a mid-rotation starter and those guys are valuable, even if they’re unsexy. Nolasco’s unlikely to cost much in terms of prospects, and he’s a rental, reducing the risk. He’s healthy, which is never sustainable for pitchers, but which bodes well for the short-term.
Last year, with Ricky Nolasco, it was buyer beware. Now, he’s a guy worth getting, because he’s a better starter than at least one guy in virtually every big-league rotation. Every little gain helps. There are some mighty tight divisions.