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November 18, 2011
The Great Debaters
The Anti-Nolasco Case by Derek Carty
While I still like Nolasco and am, in part, just playing devil’s advocate here, there are some very real warning signs that we need to take into account with the Marlins hurler. The most obvious one is the drop-off in his strikeout rate; it has fallen from over 20 percent from 2008-2010 to 16.6 percent in 2011, coinciding with a drop in fastball velocity of one mph since 2009. But while that’s concerning, it’s not the main reason to be worried about Nolasco. Even if his strikeout rate hadn’t fallen off this season, there would still be one very convincing reason to discount Nolasco’s FIP.
Nolasco is a perpetual fantasy "sleeper" and will continue to be for as long as his peripherals indicate that he is a better pitcher than his ERA would have you believe. The problem is, DIPS is just a guideline. For the majority of pitchers, we can look at their strikeouts, walks, and batted-ball profile and have a good idea what kind of pitcher he is, for most practical purposes.
What we need to realize, though, is that just because pitchers have a lot of control over their strikeouts and walks does not mean that they have no control over things like hits. As I’ve shown before, they do have control over these things; it just takes a while for us to be able to differentiate the ones that are random from the ones that are legitimate. While Nolasco’s BABIP has been high for the past three seasons, we’re not quite at the point where we can say that it will remain high, but there is another “luck” stat that he’s been poor in that we might be able to say is legit. To this point, check out Nolasco’s career Left On Base Percentages (LOB%):
The league average is usually around 72 percent, meaning Nolasco has been significantly worse than league average for much of his career. LOB% tells us how frequently the pitcher allows runners on base to score, and Nolasco really struggles here. While LOB% is much closer to the BABIP category than strikeout category in terms of year-to-year stability, we can dig deeper to see if his struggles with runners on are merely a matter of allowing too many hits or if his core peripherals dip as well.
Sure enough, Nolasco’s struggles with runners on cannot be solely attributed to BABIP. In fact, for his career, the difference between his Bases Empty BABIP (.304) and his Runners On BABIP (.315) is relatively small. But Nolasco strikes out far fewer batters when pitching from the stretch rather than when he is using a full wind-up. While most pitchers lose something in this situation, the average big-leaguer loses six percent off his Bases Empty K% when pitching with runners on, while Nolasco loses 22 percent. The same goes for walks: The average pitcher adds 10 percent more walks from the stretch, while Nolasco adds 50 percent.
You might be inclined to chalk this up to a small sample size—how many batters is Nolasco really facing with runners on?—but that would be incorrect. Over the past four seasons, Nolasco has faced nearly 1,300 batters when runners were on base, and it takes just 125 and 303 batters, respectively, for K% and UIBB% to stabilize. If I regress Nolasco’s numbers for the past four seasons to the MLB average for each situation, we arrive at these final figures:
And if we compare Nolasco’s drop-off (after running the regression) from Bases Empty to Runners On to the rest of the league, we see he’s still far behind the curve:
I know it’s tempting to look at Nolasco, see that he has posted four straight seasons with a FIP, xFIP, and SIERA all below 4.00, and fervently circle his name on your cheat sheet, but there are reasons to be very cautious. Yes, his overall numbers are good, but he struggles mightily with runners on base, and that’s when it matters most; that’s when runs score. If you’re expecting 2012 to finally be the year that Nolasco’s ERA comes down to match his FIP, you’re probably going to be disappointed.
For example, in 2008, his BABIP on groundballs off fastballs was .302, curveballs .208, changeups .250, and .273 off his slider. Flash ahead to 2011 where he is now throwing a 2-seam fastball to get more groundballs. The BABIP for groundballs for that pitch was .314, off his 4-seam fastball it was .340, off the slider .296, .259 off the curveball, and .227 off the splitter as Nolasco throws everything but the kitchen sink at the plate these days according to PITCHf/x (the change-up and splitter might be the same pitch, however). If the Marlins can improve their defensive personnel, particularly on the infield, this can only help Nolasco out.
Getting back to the park, it is going to be a whole new ballgame in Miami in 2012. Their new park will retain the spacious outfield to help suppress home runs (and will be deeper in some parts) and get the added bonus of blocking out the weather throughout most of the summer, as there is little chance they will keep the roof open in the scorching Miami sun, much like the Astros keep Minute Maid Park shut due to the heat. Hot Florida summers are no fun to watch baseball in and even less fun to play and pitch in for six months. Adding the spacious dimensions of the park (392 in right-center field) to an indoor environment could turn the place into a modern-day Astrodome. That can only help a guy like Nolasco whose groundball rate is already improving and whose home run rate has improved each of the last three seasons.
Many of the points you raise about LOB% issues and pitching with runners on remind me of Jason Hammel, who has struggled with that throughout his career. He has yet to have a season where he has stranded more than 70 percent of his runners and has routinely been below league average thanks to some rather drastic splits in pitching from the wind-up and the stretch. Yet, in 2008, Nolasco had a .231 opponents’ batting average with runners on base with just a 632 OPS. In his other full seasons, his OPS has been 788, 933, 778, and 781, so we have likely seen both outliers of that figure. Still, I am a firm believer in the theory that a player owns the skill once they display it, and if he did it in 2008, he could do it again in 2012 with more experience throwing the 2-seam fastball and (possibly) the splitter that he was not throwing in 2008 when he has primarily a three-pitch pitcher.
If we look into his numbers with runners in scoring position, some of that development shows up. In 2008, the opposition had a 508 OPS against him in those situations. In 2009, that number nearly doubled to 1010 but has declined each season since to 800 in 2010 and 736 this past season in 245 plate appearances. What that tells me is that he has more trouble pitching with runners on first base than he does with runners on second base, and that is likely due to the fact that the Marlins pitchers and catchers were tied for the lowest caught stealing rate in all of baseball at 19 percent along with the Houston Astros. Runners successfully stole the next base 103 times in 127 attempts. John Buck started in 129 games for the Marlins last season and threw out just 17 of 100 basestealers. Four Marlins pitchers had at least ten stolen bases occur while they were on the mound: Chris Volstad, Brian Sanches, Anibal Sanchez, and Nolasco. Sanches only threw 61 innings and yet had 12 of 14 runners take bases off him, so either all four of these pitchers are slow to the plate or Buck’s ability to control the running game with his arm is a detriment to the team.
The move indoors to a friendlier environment that will help his balls in play when the roof is closed and help keep him out of the heat that has worn him out by mid-August each season are just two of the reasons why I will take yet another chance on Nolasco in 2012. The skills from 2008 are still there, somewhere.