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June 23, 2010
Checking the Numbers
Have you ever recommended a movie, television show, or book to a friend, only to find out the party receiving the recommendation really didn’t find that the form of entertainment fit their taste? It’s an odd feeling. On one hand, it matters very little in the grand scheme of things—I know Houseguest is a fantastic movie regardless of what my future mother-in-law thinks. On the other hand, it sort of feels as though you let the friend down, that your credibility in whatever subject is lessened, and that his opinion of you will be reduced in the coming days. Well, if we insert me as the main character in a live-action reenactment of this type of scenario, substitute fantasy fans that take what I say to heart for the recommendees, and replace movies, books, or television shows with Ricky Nolasco, then I’m sorry and hope we can still be friends.
Being a good analyst is not necessarily easy, as it really requires a lot of hard work and research as well as a growing knowledge of what to look for in certain situations. However, no matter how much extra effort I could have put in, nor research skills or knowledge developed, everything would have led me to the same conclusion that Nolasco was going to have a bounce-back season. How could he not? I mean, the guy literally posted the exact same 4.43 K/BB ratio in 2009 that he did in his great 2008 campaign, and added 1.6 strikeouts per nine to boot.
His HR/9 rate actually decreased, and his rate of inducing grounders remained stable as well. The HR/FB mark, usually used as a sign of things to come, stayed practically at the league average as it had the year before, and it was not as if he suddenly lost five miles per hour off his fastball or decided to scrap secondary offerings to stick with the heater. Topping things off—and while it should be known I am growing ever so tired of seeing articles that simply say “BABIP high, pitcher get worse” sprout up—his batting average on balls in play increased by over 50 points; no way that was not going to come down, even if just by half of the uptick.
The fact that everything normally deemed to be within his control was more than solid, while the run prevention marks refused to follow suit, suggested that he would improve markedly. After all, controllable skills earned their moniker based on year-to-year stability; it was far more likely that Nolasco would whiff batters, be stingy with regards to walk, and serve up home runs at a rate in line with the league given his individual frequencies of allowing balls to be put in play and, as a subset of that larger group, into the air.
Through his first 14 starts of the current season, Nolasco has done basically everything he could to make my research look silly. His ERA rests at 4.90, slightly down from last year, but by no means less enough to matter. His K/BB ratio is still impressive at 3.53, but the drop is caused by a rather severe downturn in strikeouts; after striking out around 8.5 batters per nine in 2008-09, Nolasco’s rate has dropped to a meager 6.5 per nine. To make matters worse, his HR/9 has skyrocketed, relatively speaking, to 1.6 after respective marks of 1.2 and 1.1, and despite the rate increase, his HR/FB has not ballooned all that much and is still fairly close to the league average.
Again, he is not throwing the ball slower nor allocating his repertoire much differently, and a couple of other numbers used to predict luck in either direction are improved from a year ago; his LOB%—the rate at which runners that reach base are stranded—is at a league average 71.3 percent after a no-way-this-doesn’t-regress 61 percent last season; and his BABIP has dropped from .336 to .321. Still, in spite of everything, Nolasco is not having a very good season from a results point of view, and while I usually bet on controllable skills to win out, I am having a very hard time evaluating those characteristics when we now have one-and-a-half seasons suggesting something abnormal is occurring.
What really bugs me with regards to his numbers not translating into better performance is the perceived rarity of the situation. One does not need access to a database to feel that a pitcher with a 3.5 or better K/BB ratio who also struck plenty of batters out—unlike those latter Greg Maddux seasons in which he would post a 4.0 K/9 and a 1.0 BB/9—while pitching over the course of a full season would post a solid earned run average. The numbers suggest that fewer batters are reaching via the walk and, since fewer balls are being put into play given the propensity for strikeouts, fewer have a chance of turning into a hit, let alone one plating baserunners.
Since 1954, there have been 314 pitchers to, in a single season, meet the criteria alluded to above: a 3.5 or better K/UBB ratio, 120 or more innings pitched, and a K/9 of at least 6.5. If that seems low, keep in mind that a 3.5 K/UBB ratio is really good and not easily achievable for a starting pitcher, especially one who misses an above-average number of bats. The averages for the group were: 3.00 ERA, 4.57 K/UBB, 8.1 K/9. Only 42 of the 314 pitchers saw their ERAs in the particular season match, or rise above, the 4.00 threshold. Nolasco’s 5.06 ERA from 2009 ranks as the fourth-highest, and were his 4.90 ERA from the current season to qualify, it would rank fifth, right behind himself. Here are the 10 highest from 1954-2009:
Of the 42 pitchers with the 4.00-plus ERAs, Nolasco has four contemporaries in terms of appearing twice or more: Glendon Rusch (2000, 2001), David Wells (1993, 2000), Javier Vazquez (shocker, 2000, 2005), and Jon Lieber (1997, 1998, 1999, 2000). Yes, Lieber managed to fit the criteria in four consecutive seasons, though his ERAs were nowhere near as high as Nolasco’s. In fact, none of these pitchers came close to Nolasco. Then again, I could cherry-pick and make it so Nolasco sports the highest ERA of the bunch, but what would be the point? The fact remains that nobody in the last 50 or so years has ever produced back-to-back seasons of such solid peripherals yet such poor run prevention.
The pitcher that stands out the most as a comparable in this regard is Vazquez. In fact, when asked what I think is going on with Nolasco, it is hard to muster a response different than he is suffering from a case of Javy Vazquez-itis, an illness that affects the event sequencing of a pitcher. While the numbers look great sans context, the order in which they occur allows for such solid peripherals yet a much higher than expected ERA.
Then again, something else is happening to Nolasco this year, as he simply isn’t missing as many bats. He has suffered from elbow injuries in the past but a recurrence of that ailment does not seem to be the case, either. There is still plenty of season left, and after a brutal start to last season, he did rebound to produce a 3.82 ERA and 5.0-plus K/UBB ratio from June 7 until the end of the season. He could very well be warming up for an encore of that second-half performance, or he could just be mired in the midst of a hard-to-explain slump where expectations just do not match up with the actuality. Hopefully, Nolasco does not turn into a cautionary tale of making loud proclamations and swallowing pride to admit a mistake—which I’ll gladly do if it ends up that way—but for those who follow the Marlins, is he doing anything noticeably different?