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October 24, 2011

Fantasy Beat

The Nuisance of Nolasco

by Jason Collette

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Tell you what, Ricky, we coulda had a good life together! F’n real good life! Had us a league title of our own. But you didn't want it, Ricky! So what we got now is another lost season! Everything's built on that! That's all we got, boy, f’n all. So I hope you know that, even if you don't never know the rest! You count the damn few times we have been together in four seasons and you measure the short leash you keep me on—and then you ask me about Miami and tell me you'll kill me for needing somethin' I don't hardly never get. You have no idea how bad it gets! I'm not you... I can't make it on a coupla’ finishes in the money every now and then. You are too much for me Rickey, you sumbitch! I wish I knew how to quit you!

That loosely translated scene from Brokeback Mountain accurately describes my relationship with Ricky Nolasco since the start of the 2008 season. My relationship with Nolasco began in the 2008 NL Tout Wars season when I acquired him in an afterthought of a trade early in the season. I had FAAB’d Manny Acosta the first week of the season on a speculative $1 bid, and he ended up picking up two quick saves by mid-April. Another owner in the league put out a note asking for saves, and at the time, I did not need Acosta as I already had two other closers. I was, however, in need of starting pitching. He had Nolasco on his bench as he had made just two starts that season. When I offered Acosta for Nolasco, the reply was, “Why the hell not. It’s just Ricky Nolasco.” Needless to say, Nolasco won 14 games for me, helped in every category, and was a big part of my 2nd place finish that season while Acosta went on to collect just one more save the entire rest of the year.

Since Nolasco was instant gold for me in 2008, he’s always ended up on my cheat sheets not only for his magical 2008 season but for some of his skills as well. Since we are talking cowboys here, let’s review the good, the bad, and the ugly of Ricky Nolasco.

The Good
FIP: Nolaso has had a sub-3.90 FIP each of the past four seasons: 3.75, 3.31, 3.89, and 3.50 from 2008-2011, respectively. We will get to his unsightly ERAs later, but when you are trained to look at FIP when evaluating a pitcher, it is tough to overlook what Nolasco has done over the past four seasons.

PWARP: Nolasco has been right around a three-win pitcher in those seasons as well, coming in with PWARP values of 3.4, 3.1, 2.9, and 2.8.

BB/9: Nolasco rarely gets himself into trouble with walks as his walk rate is repeatedly one of the lowest among all starting pitchers. Over the past four seasons, his BB/9 has been 1.8, 2.1, 1.9, and 1.9.

K/9: Until this past season, this was also a strong skill for Nolasco as his strikeout rate was 7.9 in 2008, jumped to 9.5 in 2009, and was a very good 8.4 in 2010 before dropping considerably this season to 6.5.

GB%: Nolasco’s groundball rate has been at 45 percent or higher two of the past three seasons with a 47 percent rate in 2011 marking a career high.

The Bad
2011 K/9 rate: In 2010, Nolasco had an 8.4 K/9, but that fell off the table to a 6.5 rate in 2011.

WHIP trends: It is a variable stat, but his WHIP is in a four-season decline from 1.00 to 1.25 to 1.29 and finally to 1.40 in 2011.

BABIP: After a fortunate .279 in 2008, Nolasco’s BABIP has been .317, .316, and .337 over the past three seasons.

Health: Nolasco has had both elbow and knee troubles in his career and has missed 163 days due to injury, according to his BP player card, over the past four seasons.

The Ugly
Home run rates: 2011 was the first season Nolasco’s home run rate was not 1.1 or higher.

ERA: After the strong 2008 season with a 3.52 ERA, Nolasco continues to outpace his FIP as his ERA has been 5.06, 4.51, and 4.67 over the past three seasons.

Home performances: Despite a spacious home park, Nolasco has pitched poorly at home. He is 23-24 with a 4.65 ERA in 66 home starts at Whateverthestadiumiscalledthisweek.com Stadium and has given up 58 home runs in 418.1 innings of work compared to 41-27 on the road with just 60 home runs in 504 innings of work. He’ll likely be happy when the team moves into the new Marlins Ballpark in 2012.

Fades down the stretch: He is 47-35 with a 4.28 ERA in his career over the first four months of the season but just 17-16 with a 5.00 ERA after August 1st in his career. August is particularly bad for him, outside of 2008 when he went 3-1 with a 2.72 ERA. In other seasons, Nolasco has seen monthly ERAs in August of 7.48, 5.50, 6.16, and 6.32. This season, he was 6.32 in August and 6.83 in September.

Simply put, Nolasco is a pitcher that flashes some excellent skills in some areas and some awful ones in others. It shows up in his game logs as well, as he had 15 starts in which he gave up two or fewer earned runs while having 14 starts in which he gave up four or more earned runs. In half of those disastrous starts, he gave up five or more earned runs including two second-half stinkers against San Diego and Colorado in which he gave up 20 earned runs in just 4.1 innings of work. In fact, Nolasco’s worst work came in four starts this season in which he gave up a staggering 34 earned runs in just 11.1 innings of work. If we take away those four disastrous starts, we have a pitcher that went 10-8 on the season with a 3.37 ERA, a 1.23 WHIP, and a 3.52 FIP over 194.2 innings of work.

The decline in strikeouts is a concern, but that concern is reduced somewhat by the change in approach as he transitions into more of a groundball pitcher. In the first three months of 2011, his groundball rates were 42, 45, and 40 percent while those rates jumped to 53, 43, and 56 percent over the final three months of the season. If Nolasco is giving up strikeouts for more groundballs, he is going to need some more help from the defense or will need to stop giving up such hard contact—no easy task. His first half batting average on balls in play—when he was a more neutral pitcher—was .314, but as he got groundball heavy, that rate soared to .370.

If these struggles are a result of Nolasco transitioning into a groundball pitcher, they are a lot easier to swallow. It was encouraging to see his home run rate fall below 1.0 for the first time in his career, but the spike in BABIP and the drop in strikeouts negated any gains as he posted his worst career WHIP and second worst full-season ERA despite a fourth straight season of FIP success. There are too many good skills here to ignore Nolasco at the 2012 draft table; maybe this will be the season when he puts it all together once again, as he did in 2008.

Jason Collette is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jason's other articles. You can contact Jason by clicking here

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