Juan Nicasio was the story of the Pirates’ spring, the latest (and maybe greatest!) reclamation project to come to Pittsburgh with his career hanging by a thread and immediately assert himself as a potential star. While the Ray Searage hype that encircles this team remains overblown, there’s nothing fake about the phenomenon that is Pittsburgh’s run prevention machine, and one cog in that machine is responsible for selecting, acquiring and rehabilitating pitchers who have considerable talent that the market has underestimated, or overlooked altogether. Nicasio, whom the Dodgers non-tendered this winter for roster-crunch reasons, is a perfect fit for the mold, and it’s no surprise that he thrived upon arrival.

Now that spring and its meaningless chatter has given way to the regular season, and now that we have one start (a whole start! Truly a rich cornucopia of information) of Nicasio to consider more seriously, let’s test the idea that something new is happening—that Nicasio is really a reinvented stud. All of this pitch data is drawn from the inimitable, invaluable Brooks Baseball.

We can start by noting something simple, yet vital: Nicasio is throwing harder than he ever had as a starter before, and about as hard as he did last season in relief. He touched 99 miles per hour in his Pirates debut on Wednesday, something he rarely did even in 2015. His average fastball hummed in at 95.3 mph, whereas when he last started (for the Rockies, in 2013 and for the first half of 2014), he sat in the 92.5-93.0 mph range. Throwing hard is generally a good thing, and throwing hard earned Nicasio some excellent results on Wednesday. Over 70 percent of his fastballs went for strikes. He got four strikeouts on the pitch, and when the Cardinals did put the heater in play, they managed just one single in seven balls in play.

If that were the whole story with his velocity, this could be an all-sunshine account of his return to the rotation. It isn’t, though. Here’s the ugly underbelly of that broad-brush velocity picture:


Average Fastball Velocity













Nicasio only threw 83 pitches and faced 20 batters. Starts do not, realistically, get less stressful or taxing than this one was. Yet, it’s clear that the erstwhile reliever ran into a wall halfway through his day. Specifically, it happened after his third fastball of the fourth inning. Those first three buzzed in at 95, 95, and 97 mph, but the fourth and fifth heaters of the frame were 91 and 92 mph, respectively. It might well be that Nicasio, whose arsenal has generally consisted solely of his fastball and slider, is trying to vary the looks he gives to opposing hitters by adding and subtracting more from the heater, and if that’s true, and if it works, it could be a game-changer for him. Under the circumstances, though, I’m more inclined to think that he either came out with too much adrenaline and drained himself early, or simply lacks the stamina to start in the big leagues.

Speaking of that limited arsenal, though, let’s also consider the five changeups Nicasio threw on Wednesday. That pitch will be vital to his success in the rotation, in the long run. The Cardinals were a soft landing for him, with a weak set of left-handed hitters in their lineup (Matt Carpenter, Brandon Moss, Kolten Wong, and Jeremy Hazelbaker). Nicasio threw a total of 49 pitches to those lefty batters, so the changeup wasn’t a key weapon for him against them, but he did use it. It wasn’t a put-away pitch, though, or even something to get him out of trouble. Rather, it seemed to be a pure show-me offering, a way to keep Carpenter, especially, from sitting on either of his other two pitches. Here’s Nicasio’s changeup diary for the day:

1. To Carpenter, in a 1-1 count leading off the game, for a whiff.

2. To Carpenter, on the first pitch of his second plate appearance in the third inning, for a called strikes.

3. To Carpenter again, on the very next pitch, for a ball outside.

4. To Moss, in the fourth inning, for a first-pitch ball high.

5. To Wong, on a 1-1 count in the fifth inning, earning a groundout.

That’s very neutral usage, other than the double-up on Carpenter, and even that is a pretty transparent morsel of game theory within a plate appearance. It doesn’t seem that Nicasio has a lot of confidence in the pitch, and truth be told, he’s lucky things didn’t go worse for him when he used it Wednesday. The pitch to Wong was a firm (88 mph) change that sat about thigh-high and rode over the outer third of the plate. The one to Moss had more separation from his fastball (86.7 mph), but was so elevated that if Moss had been at all ready for it, he probably could have hit it a long way. Of course, Moss is a dead-red fastball hitter, so give Francisco Cervelli and Nicasio credit for starting him with something that he was unlikely to be looking for.

Still, there’s not much to be excited about in Nicasio’s changeup numbers. The one source of hope might be this: the changeup behaves a lot like the fastball. It has very similar horizontal and vertical movement, and similar spin. There’s no significant release-point difference batters can spot. There’s only velocity separation to distinguish it from the fastball. That’s hardly ideal: a good changeup moves a little differently than the fastball, typically sinking more. If Nicasio develops better command of the pitch, though, maybe the velocity gap will be enough to at least induce a pulled foul for a free strike, or a moment’s hesitation that slows an opponent’s bat against the fastball, when Nicasio really needs it.

To round this out, a quick word about Nicasio’s slider: meh. That’s pretty much what his slider has always been, but in case you’d thought it had been hindered by the thin air in Colorado or would be augmented by some exchange program wherein the Pirates get to have Dan Warthen teach someone his slider in exchange for some Met getting a tutorial on sinkers inside, not so much. Nicasio continues not to miss bats with the breaking ball, and not to get an exceptional number of ground balls with it, either.

I don’t want to sound too down on the Nicasio experiment. His results on Wednesday were tremendous. If he can sustain his velocity better as he stretches out and the season revs up, the Pirates might have something. Even if neither of his other pitches develops into what we normally think of as an effective secondary offering, Nicasio could thrive simply by being able to bust people inside and induce weak batted balls, to be dispensed with by the excellent fielders and intricate shifting the Pirates employ. If you were holding out hope for J.A. Happ-level Searage magic here, keep walking, nothing to see. At least not yet.

Thank you for reading

This is a free article. If you enjoyed it, consider subscribing to Baseball Prospectus. Subscriptions support ongoing public baseball research and analysis in an increasingly proprietary environment.

Subscribe now
You need to be logged in to comment. Login or Subscribe
I don't think Nicasio owners are holding out hope for JA Happ level magic, but maybe a Cubs fan holding out hope that its all smoke?!?!?!
<--- holding out hope for JA Happ level magic.
Thanks, interesting analysis!
Matt, I don't understand the negative tone of the article, especially the comment about the Searage hype being overblown. All I know is that the majority of pitchers that have worked with him have improved.

The decrease in fastball velocity can be expected from most starting pitchers, 94 in the 6th is still pretty good. Even if they get a good half year out of him, Taillon and Glasnow should be ready by mid season.

I bet the Dodgers wish they had kept him.
Cory Luebke looked surprisingly good out of the bullpen last night. Between Luebke, Melancon, Watson, Caminero and the possibly fixed Neftali Feliz, the Pirates might be happy if they can consistently get 85 good pitches out of Nicasio.
(Also not to be overlooked: Kyle Lobstein)
I don't get the negative tone either. He fixed a lot of guys who went on to
make a boatload of money. they are all quite happy with ray