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Kevin Slowey was Framed!

Should we be worried about Ricky Nolasco?

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Originally posted at Kevin Slowey was Framed!

The Twins made a big splash back in December, signing Ricky Nolasco to a 4 year, $49 million contract with a team option for a fifth year. It was the largest contract the Twins had given during free agency and it marked a change in philosophy related to building a team. The Twins were no longer going to simply rely on home-grown talent and smaller signings. They wanted to sign a player who could lead their rotation for a couple of years while guys with more talent, but less experience ready themselves for the Majors.

Two months into the season and Nolasco has a 6.12 ERA and 1.575 WHIP in ten starts. He had a 3.70 ERA and 1.21 WHIP in 33 starts in 2013. What happened?

Some posit that Nolasco will heat up as the weather improves. Of course, that is just a narrative. It was pretty nice on Sunday and he got rocked. Nolasco pitched a gem in his third start as a Twin, throwing eight innings of one-run baseball in 50-degree temperature. If convenient narratives won't help us figure out if we should be worried, perhaps we could look to...stats?!?

I know, stats are for nerds. In some cases, using these nerdy stats, we can figure out if a player is as bad as they seem. In the case of Nolasco, there are some interesting stats that point in many different directions. I broke them into a few categories.

Split Stats

Before we get too deep into our analysis, let me just state that Nolasco has been better in May. Take a look at this chart that compares April and May:

April 6.67 5.27 4.66 1.75 9.7 6.7 13.9 0.355 66.7 50.5
May 5.58 4.09 3.79 1.4 20.5 5.3 11.6 0.333 66.7 31.6
Career 4.45 3.8 3.77 1.3 19.1 5.5 10.4 0.309 68.6 41.7

He hasn't been outstanding in May, but most of the important indicator stats have improved since a pretty awful April. That said, there are still some individual stats that will give us a better understanding of how an effective pitcher in 2013 became a volcano of misery in 2014. Ok, that's a bit dramatic. How about a science fair volcano of misery?

Luck Stats

Home run-to-fly ball ratio (HR/FB%) measures how frequently a fly ball becomes a home run. Research has shown that pitchers (and batters for that matter) tend to have their own rate at which fly balls become home runs. When the figure deviates, there's some luck at play. Nolasco has a career mark of 10.4%, just about average in the Majors. When that rate is four points higher than usual, it means that an extra 4% of fly balls go over the fence instead of nestling softly in a glove. In raw numbers, we're talking about one extra home run per month, but it still makes a difference.

BABIP is another luck-based stat where a player sets their own baseline. Nolasco's BABIP is quite out of line with his career mark. In April it was really high and in May it's been just quite high. Those figures aren't doing him a lot of favors, and it was especially unforgiving in April because his strikeout rate was very low and thus more balls were being put in play. Again, the raw numbers might only get us to four or five more hits that Nolasco gave up as a result of his high BABIP, but again, every little bit counts.

Even if these stats only account for a small amount of Nolasco's bad performance, they do matter. These two stats point toward some bad luck for Nolasco and thus, we shouldn't worry too much. Of course, these aren't the only stats that matter.

Skill Stats

Can someone remind me, is a giant drop in strikeout rate good or bad for a pitcher? Without my baseball encyclopedia handy, I'll just have to assume it's a bad thing. That ten point drop in strikeout rate could be explained a lot of different ways: not hitting spots, trying to involve infielders, Rick Anderson is Satan, etc. Whatever the reasons behind the drop, the drop itself was very troubling. While Nolasco hasn't been much better in May, the return of his strikeout rate is a good sign for the future.

His walk rate has been pretty stable. However, Nolasco has always had great ability to limit walks but it didn't always (or even frequently) translate to a great ability to limit runs. So, we can be pleased about his walk rate, but it hasn't been a great indicator of his success in the past either. Bummer.

These skill-based stats explain a lot in April. Nolasco's ability to strike out batters almost completely vanished in April. It was almost as if he was being threatened by Kevin Correia or something. When the rate returned in May, he was better, although the luck-based stats were still not in his favor. Again, these things appear to be positive going forward. Although, there are a few more stats to look at.

Shoulder Shrug Stats

LOB% or left on-base percentage (I call it strand rate just for further confusion) is a stat that calculates the percentage of baserunners left on base by the pitcher. This is another stat that has an individual baseline. Nolasco's strand rate is lower than his career figure, but not by much. The discrepancy may account for some of his struggles, but not much. The shoulder shrug comes in when you look at his career figure compared to the typical league average, which usually comes in around 73-74%. Why does Nolasco strand runners so poorly? Who knows, but I doubt he figures it out at this stage of his career.

Nolasco's ground ball rate is all over the place, so who knows what to think so far. His season figure is in line with his career rate, but his career rate isn't all that great. He had seen his ground ball rate rise to respectable territory from 2010-2012, but it has dropped back down in the past two seasons. I don't think the Twins can rely on Nolasco to be a ground ball specialist at this point. That said, with a decent defense behind him, a fly ball pitcher can have success. Do the Twins have a decent outfield defense? Well, come on, you know the answer to that.

xFIP or expected fielder-independent pitching is a great way to look at how a pitcher would have performed if we lived in a perfect world where ballparks and home runs were normalized and puppies and kitties flowed out of water faucets but we still had access to water in other ways. Nolasco's xFIP looks great, as it always does, but that hasn't really helped Nolasco in the actual performance department. If the Twins thought this would be different in Minnesota, I have a water faucet to sell them. Shoulder shrug.

Finally, there doesn't appear to be anything related to his repertoire that is hurting his performance. His velocity is right in line with the past couple seasons and he's not throwing anything too much more or less than he threw it before. His stuff is the same but his results have been poor. I guess that, more than anything, is a reason to be optimistic.


Of course, this all falls into the small sample size realm where we aren't allowed to draw any conclusions ever. However, these stats all exist and while they don't really tell us anything going forward, they can explain why things happened the way they did.

His strikeout and walk rates are more in line with his career average, but his ground ball rate, home run-to-fly ball rate and BABIP are out of line. This could explain some of the discrepancy between his April/May and career ERAs. While no single stat explained a huge portion of his struggles, when you add up all the little bits, it kind of starts to make sense. Think of it this way. If someone gave me just one slice of pizza, it would barely fill me up. If I had six slices of pizza, I'd be comatose on the couch with sauce on my face and my shirt off. Ricky Nolasco is dealing with the equivalent of six slices of pizza. Think about it.

I'm not sure Nolasco will ever be worth the contract he was given, but I feel pretty confident that he will perform better going forward than he has thus far. But then, I live in a puppy/kitty faucet, shirtless, covered in pizza sauce kind of world.
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  1. Mike Frasier Law's Avatar
    I imagine BABIP captures what I've seen a few times. In looking through his game log, I found this interesting:

    5/25 - BABIB .444 - His defense included Santana, Nunez, Parm outfield.
    5/18 - BABIP .333 - OF of Kubel, Hicks, Parm
    5/13 - BABIP .267!! - I can't tell who played CF, but the lineup included Nunez, Parm, Santana, Kubel and Escobar. I imagine three of those played OF, but it's hard to know who.
    5/7 - BABIP .357 - OF of Kubel, Fuld, Colabello.
    5/2 - BABIP .286 - OF of Kubel, Fuld, Colabello
    4/24 - BABIP .391 - OF of Fuld, Hicks, Colabello
    4/18 - BABIP .435 - OF of Mastro, Hicks, Colabello
    4/12 - BABIP .200 - OF of Kubel, Hicks, Colabello
    4/6 - BABIP .353 - OF of Kubel, Hicks, Bartlett!!
    3/31 - BABIP .421 - OF of Arcia, Hicks, Willingham

    Point is that he's had some pretty bad OF defense behind him. Particularly bad for a flyball pitcher. It seems to me that since May, he's been pitching about how we should expect him to, and if we put a good defense behind him (a topic in another thread, I believe), we might actually see good results.
  2. chuchadoro's Avatar
    The NL to AL switch should be factored in as well.


    The study was from 2000-2005 and there is also a SSS alert in dealing with 57 FA pitchers but the point remains that the AL is undoubtedly the tougher league on pitchers. The 29 pitchers who switched to the NL from the AL saw their ERA+ go from 97 to 110. The 28 pitchers who made the opposite move saw their ERA+ decrease from 113 to 100. Basically, an average AL starter becomes an above average NL starter and an above average NL starter becomes an average AL starter.

    The bad news is Nolasco was a below average NL starter judging by his career ERA+ of 92. I don't think the league switch is entirely responsible for his horrid ERA+ of 66 in 2014 but is certainly a significant factor. FIP is kinder to Nolasco but his FIP has consistently been better than his ERA throughout his career. Nolasco will get better but don't hold your breath waiting for a repeat of his 2013 season. He's a back of the rotation guy who is better at fooling Twins fans into believing their team is willing to spend than he is fooling professional hitters.
  3. h2oface's Avatar
    These 2014 stats are just as valid as the "small sample" of the last half of 2013. I think a lot can be told from small samples, especially if you are managing a team. It is important to be able to identify a players streaks and make lineup changes sooner than later to maximize the benefits to the team. Waiting for the average or the mean, will lose games that could be won.
  4. jorgenswest's Avatar
    Some of the data is beyond the small sample threshold and has been for a while.

    Strike out rate
    walk rate
    groundball rate
    fly ball rate

    The drops in strike out rate and groundball rate is not a good combination. The drop is enough that it can not be explained by league change. The sample is large enough that it can't be explained by bad luck. I hope it is the pitch mix and increased use of his fastball. His slider has always been his most effective pitch. He needs to find that pitch and use it often.
  5. Trevor0333's Avatar
    Nice article. good read.

    It had to be known when the OF was going to consist of Willinham/Hicks/Arcia & Kubel it was going to be much harder on the pitchers. That defense is terrible. Hicks has all the tools but is a very average CF at best right now. Thats a brutal defense and not even considering the parade of AAAA middle infielders manning so much OF time.

    It really makes you have to look at some of these stats that don't account for the atrocious "Twins baseball" defense.
  6. tarheeltwinsfan's Avatar
    Great article and posts. Thanks.
  7. old nurse's Avatar
    To say that a derivation from the norm on HR/FB and BABIP is all luck is not always true . A certain Twins pitcher in 2012 had 19 starts with career highs in BABIP and HR/FB ratio. Nobody said he was being unlucky.
    Nolasco's velocity hasn't changed. The mix of pitches does not appear to be unchanged. Results are different. To blame it on a poor defense could be valid. Look at many people's favorite starter to hate, Correia. Stable K/9, BB/9, and a drop in HR/FB. Results have not been good. Career high in BABIP.
  8. Sconnie's Avatar
    His xFIP in May is quite similar to his career. Tough April, but to be expected considering the changes he faced.

    He is who the Twins signed. That's how free agency works. He isn't going to be better this far in his career than his average over the whole 4 year contract.
  9. Brad Swanson's Avatar
    There are a lot of great points here. I wish I could address them all. I think that Nolasco has been part bad, part unlucky, part a product of his situation and part who he has always been. I'm optimistic that he can be a 200-inning, 4.50 ERA pitcher for a few years. I was hoping for more when he signed, but his second half with the Dodgers (and in their very forgiving stadium) clouded my judgment.

    I do like h2oface's comment about small samples. Just because we can't use them to predict anything, doesn't mean they don't have some value. If nothing else, they tell us what happened and that's something.
  10. The Wise One's Avatar
    What is a small sample size. In articles I do not recall seeing margin of error statistics.

    If numbers for relief pitchers at the end of a season are valid as predictive I would think many starters would have pitched a large enough sample of batters faced to have valid predicive numbers. fip et al does not differentiate between starters and relievers.
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