Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Ricky Nolasco signs with the Minnesota Twins: Wait, what?

Well, well, well, it looks like the Twins are serious about improving their team!  They came to terms with Ricky Nolasco and he instantly becomes the Twins' best starting pitcher since probably Johan Santana.  The terms of the deal aren't currently known.  Nolasco is an eight-year veteran, with all but part of 2013 spent with the Florida/Miami Marlins.  Nolasco is a 6' 2" righty who relies on a couple of fastballs that top out around 93-94 MPH and an effective slider that he uses as an out pitch.  Nolasco is a career 89-75 pitcher with a 4.37 career ERA.  Since becoming a full-time starter in 2008, he has averaged 192 innings per season and has a 3.77 K:BB ratio. 

Now that we know who this new Twin is, should be we excited?

I say yes.  I had Nolasco rated as the third best starting pitching target for the Twins this off-season.  I originally had him much lower, based solely on his reputation.  As I dug into his stats more and more and compared him to more expensive options like Ervin Santana and Ubaldo Jimenez, I started to see the value in Nolasco, even at a fairly high cost. 

Nolasco has great control, with a 5.5% career walk rate.  In fact, he's one of the best active control pitchers, as he's tied for 10th among active starters with at least 500 innings pitched.  His strikeout rate is just above 19% although that figure has dipped a bit in recent years.  His career ERA is 4.37, but his career xFIP is 3.75.  His diminishing strikeout rate would be a concern, but he's still roughly league-average and he's traded strikeouts for ground balls.  His GB rate sits more in the 45% range, opposed to the 38% range from earlier in his career. 

Nolasco was tremendous in 2008, looking like a future ace at the age of 25.  His career hasn't progressed that way.  In 2008, Nolasco threw 212.1 innings, posted a 3.52 ERA with a 186:42 K:BB ratio.  He topped that strikeout figure in 2009 (195), but saw his ERA jump all the way to 5.06.  His ERA has slowly trended downward, hitting 3.70 in 2013.  He's changed a bit as a pitcher over the years, but it seems he may have figured out the right formula in 2013. 

I put his last 5 seasons into a chart, for easy consumption:

K%
BB%
GB%
BABIP
LOB%
HR/FB
ERA
xFIP
AvgFBVelo
2009
24.80
5.60
38.30
0.317
61.00
11.00
5.06
3.23
91.5
2010
22.10
5.00
40.00
0.316
71.60
12.40
4.51
3.37
91.2
2011
16.60
4.90
45.10
0.331
66.20
9.50
4.67
3.55
90.6
2012
15.00
5.70
46.60
0.309
69.30
9.10
4.48
4.17
90.1
2013
19.80
5.50
43.00
0.299
70.90
8.70
3.70
3.58
90.4
Career Avg
19.30
5.50
41.70
0.307
68.70
10.30
4.37
3.75
90.9

I threw in his average fastball velocity as he has seen a very slight decrease over the years.  However, the trade-off between strikeouts and ground balls should offset that decrease slightly.  Just looking at the chart, Nolasco seems to have either noticed his dip in velocity or had it pointed out to him, and he started to transition from a strikeout/fly ball pitcher to a more balanced, more ground ball-focused pitcher.  This doesn't mean that he is "pitch to contact" as he posted a strikeout rate ever so slightly above National League average (19.8% to the average of 19.7%).  When you consider his elite walk rate, there is hope that the Twins have landed a consistently good pitcher just hitting his stride. 

The most encouraging part of that chart is that his 2013 season was not some crazy fluke.  His rates were basically all right in line with his career rates.  His strand rate and BABIPs were normal.  His velocity and strikeout rates were normal.  It just looks like he finally put everything together after four years of under-performing compared to his peripheral stats.  At just 31, he could be productive throughout the life of the deal (again, terms unknown).  This all assumes health, but that's pretty much the case with every pitcher that has ever lived. 

Some will point out that Nolasco was just a 4th starter on the Dodgers.  To me, this is playing very fast and loose with the Number X starter label.  The Dodgers have Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, which means that just about every pitcher on the planet is a 3rd starter at best on the Dodgers.  Hyun-Jin Ryu was very good last season, but his xFIP (3.46) wasn't far off of Nolasco's while with the Dodgers (3.51).  You could argue they were 3a and 3b (at least until the playoffs, but that's a different story). 

The Twins aren't the Dodgers.  The Twins don't have anyone close to Kershaw, Greinke or even Ryu.  At least, they didn't until they signed Nolasco.  You can't look at Nolasco and be upset that the Twins didn't get an "ace."  I prefer to think of this signing in two ways.  His innings will basically replace those of the garbage amalgamation of Pedro Hernandez, Kyle Gibson and Vance Worley in 2013.  That hideous monster posted an ERA around 7 and only managed about 150 innings in 32 consistently disastrous starts.  If you don't agree with that thinking, consider Nolasco a direct replacement for Mike Pelfrey and his 5.19 ERA in 29 starts (152.2 innings).  If nothing else, we can hope Nolasco's signings bring an end to the two-year contract rumors we keep hearing about Pelfrey.

Does Ricky Nolasco make the Twins a contender?  Come on, be reasonable.  Nolasco is a fine pitcher, but not a game-changer.  If Nolasco is the only significant starter signed this off-season, I'd still consider the off-season a success.  The Twins spent money on a free agent!  We've been begging them to do that for years.  Plus, he's a good one.  The fact is, the Twins are not a marquee franchise and the team has been bad for 3 straight seasons.  The Twins can want to sign free agents all they want, but the player has to agree to come here.  Nolasco did and hopefully he brings some of his starting pitching friends with him. 

As it stands right now, the rotation for 2014 could look something like this:

Ricky Nolasco
Kyle Gibson

Honestly, I think that rotation combined with a good bullpen and potentially good offense has the potential to win 70-75 games.  If the Twins can add another player at or above Nolasco's level, or a couple of guys just below, then who knows?  I know I'm excited right now and I know that the Twins are better than they were yesterday.  Isn't that the point of free agency?

Update - the contract terms have been announced.  4 years, $49 million guaranteed.  5th year option at $13 million that vests based on innings incentive in 2016 and 2017.  $1 mil buyout on that fifth year.  Very reasonable, plenty of room to sign more free agents as a result.  Nolasco has been worth just under $48 million over the past four years, according to Fangraphs.  Nice work, Twins!

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