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Secret to Success? Nolasco Staying Inside.

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ID:	6125On Tuesday afternoon the Minnesota Twins introduced their most lucrative free agent in the organization’s history.

Outside on the scoreboard, high above the team’s dormant field, splashed a graphic welcoming Ricky Nolasco to Twins Territory. At the press conference cameras rolled, questions were lobbed and Nolasco (with his impressively manicured beard) sat between general manager Terry Ryan and his agent, Matt Sosnick, having the hopes pinned on him that he will help dig the franchise out from the bottom of the division.

New uniform, smiles, handshakes, photo ops.

Ryan spoke to Nolasco’s workhorse pedigree, his ability to miss bats and his character. His agent compared him to the muscle cars that the pitcher loved to collect. Media members peppered him with inquiries ranging from his thoughts on the move to the American League to if the taste of the postseason with the Dodgers whet his appetite for more playoff action.

When the song and dance ended, I tapped Nolasco for a quick sidebar on his pitching style.

Based on research conducted at the beginning of the offseason, I asked Nolasco if his 2013 success coincided with his increase of pitching inside to opponents more frequently.

“I think it is a big part of any starting pitcher’s game,” Nolasco answer, reciting pitching wisdom imparted from grizzled pitching coach to pitcher for generations. “I think you’ve got to pitch inside and open up the outside part of the plate for later on in the game. That’s always the process you want to do as a starting pitcher.”

Hard in, soft away. Live to pitch another day. That is the mantra of pitchers everywhere since the dawn of the game.

However, Nolasco and his coaches with the Marlins noticed he had been drifting away from this technique a few seasons ago and hitters were able to extend their arms, a sure-sign that it was further off the hitter’s belt and more in the swing zone.

That is when he made a minor change.

Maybe it was simply intended to be a placebo effect, like wearing women’s underwear or breathing through his eyelids, but Nolasco, at the behest of his pitching coach, shifted a half-foot on the rubber towards the first base side.

“One of my pitching coaches in Miami, Randy St. Clair, was the one who suggested it,” he offered. “Obviously it has been a big positive influence for me and my pitching style and a big change helping me get back to where I should be able to pitch numbers-wise.”

The results were noticeable. From 2011 to July 2012, Nolasco held a 4.76 ERA with a hardy 1.40 WHIP. Following the change, he has had a 3.71 ERA with a tidier 1.23 WHIP.

“[St. Clair] told me a lot of the times when I was getting in trouble and getting hit was when things were just barely coming back on the plate so he said that maybe if we move over six to eight inches on that side it that would prevent from those two or three pitches that were hurting me a game, that would keep them out and away from the middle of the plate a little more. And he was right.”


Prior to last year’s trade deadline, Fangraph.com’s Jeff Sullivan showed visual evidence of Nolasco’s rubber shift with Pitch F/X graphs and screen grabs. In the span from 2011 to July 2012, Nolasco’s strikeout rate had fallen significantly to 16% and his well-hit average had jumped to .217. Post-shift, the strikeout rate climbed back to league-average (19%) and the well-hit average dropped to .173. It was like Nolasco was a new pitcher, or at the very least his pre-2011 self again.

Perhaps the success goes back to working inside. According to ESPN Stats & Info, since August of 2012 he’s been able to lock in on the inner-half of the plate more with all his pitches. Between 2011 and July 2012, Nolasco’s pitches were hitting the inside portion of the zone just 23% of the time (compared to the 28% league average). Since? He’s been going inside at a 29% rate and his overall numbers are hard to argue.

Welcome to Minnesota Ricky. The weather’s about to get nasty. Remember to stay inside.
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