Heading into the 2007 season, the Marlins looked to have a bright future in their rotation, as four of their five starters from the previous campaign were coming off of successful rookie seasons. While things overall have not worked out the way many expected for the quartet, one of the four, Ricky Nolasco, has hit his stride this year to become a better pitcher than many thought he could be. What changed for the now 25-year-old starter, and can we expect him to be the ace that Florida’s rotation needs to compete in a tough division?

Carlos Enrique Nolasco was drafted by the Cubs out of Rialto High School in California in the fourth round of the 2001 amateur entry draft. They signed him soon after, and sent the 18-year-old right-hander to pitch for their Rookie-level club in the Arizona League. While Nolasco would throw just 18 innings there, he managed to punch out 23 hitters and walked just five, none too shabby for a kid just out of high school. The Cubs moved Nolasco to short-season A-ball to pitch for Boise in 2002, where he would toss 90 2/3 innings, striking out 9.1 hitters per nine while walking just 2.5. Despite the impressive start to his career, he wasn’t highly touted just yet, rating as just the 19th-best prospect in the Cubs’ organization by Baseball America heading into the 2003 season, and not even appearing in the pages of Baseball Prospectus 2003. At the time, he was capable of touching 96 but was more often working in the low 90s, and was considered a prospect who needed to work on his promising curveball and refine his off-speed pitches if he was really going to develop.

Nolasco was sent straight to High-A Daytona in 2003 to make his full-season debut, where he would once again pitch impressively despite the aggressive assignment-he was skipping full-season Low-A, after all. He struck out 8.2 hitters per nine, walking 2.9, and keeping hits and homers to a minimum thanks to his impressive stuff. Baseball America nevertheless rated him only the 20th-best prospect in the organization, calling him the Cubs’ “stealth pitching prospect” behind both Mark Prior and Andy Sisco (fellow 2001 draftees of Nolasco’s). The Cubs continued to be aggressive with Nolasco for the 2004 campaign, moving him up to Triple-A in May after a short stint at Double-A. To the surprise of no one (excepting, of course, the Cubs officials who thought the promotion was a good idea), Nolasco struggled, seeing drops in his strikeout rate (6.2), a bump in his walk rate (3.5), and massive spikes in both his hits (15.1) and home run rates (1.6). A return to Double-A worked much better for him, as Nolasco struck out 115 batters in 107 innings on the year there, while walking just 37 and holding opponents to a .257 batting average. Having been punished by his performance at Triple-A for pushing him up the chain so quickly, the Cubs had Nolasco spend all of 2005 with Double-A West Tennessee, and he continued to excel there, whiffing 173 hitters in 161 2/3 innings pitched while walking just 2.6 per nine.

Before the 2006 season, Nolasco was part of a trade to the Florida Marlins that also saw Renyel Pinto and Sergio Mitre shipped out by the Cubs in exchange for the inimitable Juan Pierre. Once the dust settled, Baseball America rated Nolasco the eighth-best prospect with his new organization, though they did mention how when he had first moved up to Triple-A he had been afraid to use his changeup and dropped down with his curveball, adversely altering his effectiveness. Baseball Prospectus 2006 was also a big fan of Nolasco, saying:

Nolasco gets high marks for his poise. He can throw three pitches for strikes, and he’s succeeded at the upper levels despite his relative youth. The 2005 Southern League Pitcher of the Year, he started hot and finished well, capping an excellent season with eight shutout innings against Carolina in the Southern League playoffs. He can get a bit fine with lefties, losing them by nibbling, but he might iron that out in time. He’s now the one who’s gotten away, or the pitching prospect with the track record for health that gave the Marlins the good sense to ask for him in the Pierre deal.

One of the important things to have taken away from that comment was the concern about Nolasco’s performance against left-handed hitters, as control and efficiency on the mound are big parts of his success. When he made it to the majors at age 23, Nolasco once again rarely used his changeup (just 4.4 percent of the time) and relied heavily on his fastball and curveball. Though his performance as a Marlins rookie was a significant improvement over his time at Triple-A in 2004, he had some hiccups, like his 1.3 homers per nine-partially the result of being a two-pitch pitcher with a G/F ratio that leaned towards fly ball-heavy. The limited repertoire also probably contributed to the shaving off of a few strikeouts per nine from his performance in the big leagues. Worst of all, though, was that Nolasco gave up a .546 slugging percentage to left-handers (not to mention a .208 mark in Isolated Power), a lack of progress that was bemoaned in Baseball Prospectus 2007.

The one good thing to take from his performance against lefties was that he wasn’t walking them, so at least he wasn’t nibbling-his Isolated Patience against southpaws was .048, while against right-handers it was .054. Granted, the OBP against lefties was .386 and just .297 against those batting from the right, but that’s due to how hittable lefties found his repertoire more than anything. His performance against anyone was almost a non-issue in 2007 though, as he managed to toss just 21 1/3 innings at the highest level in a season marred by three different trips to the disabled list due to elbow problems. Nolasco threw just 33 2/3 innings at the minors, essentially turning 2007 into a lost season for the young starter. During the short time he was in the majors, he struggled to put hitters away, walked more than was normal for him, and once again was susceptible to the long ball.

After that kind of lost season, it probably wasn’t surprising that 2008 would begin with his suffering from many of the same issues. Nolasco was supposedly back and healthy, but he wasn’t pitching like it, giving up a .257/.319/.525 line to opponents in April while striking out just 4.4 per nine and allowing far too many home runs-if his 2.1 per nine rate had lasted the season, Nolasco would have been on pace for nearly 47 homers over 200 innings pitched. May led to some improvement, as he struck out 6.6 per nine and cut the home runs down to 0.8 per nine; that homer rate was not only better than his awful April showing, but was also better than the performance he had put up in either Triple-A or his previous MLB stints. While he has had some bumps in the road with power since that time (a .188 ISO in June and .186 in September) he’s been a dominant starter since June 15, when he shut down the Tampa Bay Rays over 8 2/3 innings, with 12 punchouts and just one walk and three runs allowed. Since June 1, Nolasco has posted a 3.17 ERA, 8.6 strikeouts per nine, 1.2 homers per, and just 1.2 free passes in his 21 starts since June 1, easily the best marks he’s put up since his time at Double-A West Tennessee.

This stretch is due in part to Nolasco using the pitches he already had at his disposal more often, cutting back on his fastball to instead employ the others (as Eric will discuss next). This improved pitch selection has allowed Nolasco to overshoot his most optimistic PECOTA forecast, as his 90th-percentile projection had him delivering 6.2 K/9, 2.5 BB/9, and a 3.31 ERA. While he’s right around where he’s supposed to be in that outcome ERA-wise, his actual peripherals are better, which represents especially good news for his future. Now that Nolasco has finally harnessed the potential he flashed at Double-A at the major league level, we may see some comparable players that don’t make us cringe when we think about where his career could have been heading.-Marc Normandin

Performance Evaluation

Being named the starting pitcher on Opening Day is an honor generally bestowed upon the best hurler on the team, but as spring training came to a close this year, the Marlins were not too sure which of their pitchers met that criteria. They did not have a recognizable ace, making the decision that much more difficult. Skipper Fredi Gonzalez ultimately opted to put lefty journeyman Mark Hendrickson on the mound to start the season, but come 2009, you better believe that won’t be the case. Instead, you can expect that Ricky Nolasco will be the one toeing the rubber. That’s a pretty big surprise relative to where he was in camp, and while Nolasco’s seasonal line has improved as the months have passed, few analysts anticipated that he would eventually be the ace in Miami.

Overall, in 205 1/3 innings, Nolasco has surrendered just 188 hits, issued only 36 unintentional free passes, and fanned 176 hitters. A fly-ball rate of around 43 percent coupled with a league-average HR/FB percentage has resulted in 28 gopherballs served at his expense, but his other controllable skills-especially a 4.3 K/BB ratio-have been solid enough to produce a 3.84 FIP. This largely supports his 3.55 ERA as being “real,” in that it’s relatively representative of his performance. With a very low 1.12 WHIP and a 76 percent rate of baserunners stranded, Nolasco is not letting many reach base and is allowing even less to add to their runs total.

His numbers were not always this solid, though, as poor performance in April led many to speculate whether he had truly overcome his 2007 elbow woes. As April came to a close, Nolasco’s line was pretty ugly: 26 1/3 IP, 26 hits, nine walks, 13 strikeouts, and 5.13 ERA. Whether or not this would be the norm was up in the air.

Fortunately for the Marlins, it wasn’t, and he reverted to his past promise as a prospect. From June to September, Nolasco walked just 16 hitters while striking out 138 in 145 innings. For those keeping score at home, that is a gaudy 8.6 K/UBB ratio. These last four months, Nolasco’s posted a 1.00 WHIP, a 3.17 ERA, and a 3.29 FIP, numbers right up there with division rival Cole Hamels and All-Star Dan Haren.

What brought about this change? There was not much evidence in the Pitch-f/x data related to movement or location, but according to Nolasco himself, his increased usage of a cut fastball helped turn his season around. His pitch repertoire, on the whole, is tough to classify because his off-speed offerings are essentially “combination” pitches. His cutter is more of a cut slider (or a “slutter” as Jonathan Papelbon has so aptly termed his own variant of the pitch), while his curve is much more of a slurve. If that isn’t confusing enough, his splitter is occasionally mistaken for a changeup, and vice versa. We could get into all sorts of debates over the title of these various pitches or what they look like to hitters or whether the classification algorithm matters in defining the nature of Nolasco’s results, but it is hard to deny that, since he increased his usage of these pitches, he has been one of the best hurlers in the National League. In 2006, he threw just a fastball and curveball, as those two pitches accounted for 97 percent of his deliveries. This year, he has dramatically cut back his reliance on those two while incorporating the cutter and splitter that much more.

With the bases empty, Nolasco is at his worst, with a 771 OPS against and a HR:AB rate of one for every 22 at-bats. Put some ducks on the pond, though, and his OPS drops to 628 while the HR:AB ratio plummets to one every 56. Move those ducks into scoring position, and he has yet to allow a home run while keeping hitters at bay with just a 509 OPS. While this is not necessarily atypical of aces-guys like Johan Santana, Roy Halladay, and Tim Lincecum all get better with men on and in scoring position-who thought of Nolasco as an ace? He hasn’t been facing weak competition either, as 14 of his starts have come against the Mets, Cardinals, Braves, and Phillies, who rank first, third, fourth, and sixth in the NL in team EQA. Nolasco cannot change this perception that he’s not an ace, at least not by himself beyond his own performance, but regardless of the labels and who hangs them on him, he looks to be very capable of anchoring the Marlins’ staff for years to come.-Eric Seidman

Health Report

Nolasco’s elbow is one of the more risky places in baseball right now, and his workload through two managers is certainly responsible for that. Used heavily but never really overworked by Joe Girardi, Nolasco nevertheless broke down in 2007. In 2008, he’s ended up over the 200-inning mark after making only 21 innings worth of major league appearances (and 55 total innings pitched across five levels) the previous season. While he’s been great as part of the Marlins’ young but fragile rotation, my concern is that they don’t seem to have learned the lesson from all of the breakdowns they’ve had to work their way through the last two seasons.

Nolasco’s elbow problems aren’t specific, just tenderness and inflammation that came from workload and skewed mechanics. His troubles began soon after he had some minor back problems, which altered his mechanics and led to a bit more stress on his elbow. He spent the better part of 2007 trying to find a way to pitch without causing the elbow to shoot into the red portion of the inflammation response. Contrary to what many think, Nolasco did not have surgery, and never has received a definitive diagnosis. Most indications are that he had a sprain, but there are also symptoms that match up with bone spurs and even some hints of shoulder issues.

Whatever it was, pitching in the Arizona Fall League in 2007 helped cure it. He showed up, immediately rediscovered his velocity, and held onto it over the winter. Scouts described his motion as more compact, and the results were solid, encouraging the Marlins to line him up as their fifth starter. The elbow has held up over the long season, but at 25 years old and with a giant jump up to a career high in innings, he’s a prime candidate for the type of problems that we see a year after someone moves past their own Verducci line. Nolasco has also been asked to stay in games pretty long, going as high as 132 pitches in an attempt to throw a complete game, and ranking 16th on the major league PAP list.

Making it through 2008 healthy and effective has been a big step forward for him, especially as he crosses through the injury nexus, but Nolasco remains the reddest of red flags. He’s avoided having surgeons peer into his elbow so far, but the indications are that at some point in the future, they’ll likely get that chance.-Will Carroll

Eric Seidman is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. You can contact Eric by clicking here.