Tuesday, March 4, 2014

14 Minnesota Twins to Watch in '14: Ricky Nolasco

The Twins left the 2013 season with gaping holes in their starting rotation.  This was nothing new, as the Twins had left the 2011 and 2012 seasons with those same holes.  However, the Twins decided to do something about those holes this Winter.  Instead of looking at youngsters who would be a few years from contributing, they looked to the free agent market and surprised many fans and observers with their aggressive spending early in free agency.  In fact, they went out and inked the largest free agent contract in team history.  They handed out a  4 year, $49 million contract to a 31-year-old starter coming off a very solid season.

The 4th most important Twins player in 2014 is Ricky Nolasco.

Who is he? 

Nolasco is an eight-year veteran who spent the vast majority of his career with the Florida/Miami Marlins franchise.  Nolasco owns an 89-75 record, a career 4.37 ERA and pretty solid strikeout and walk rates.  Nolasco possesses a very effective slider, which he uses as a strikeout pitch.  Last season, batters managed a paltry 54 wRC+ against that slider.  He throws two different fastballs, including a very flat and therefore, very hittable four-seamer.  His two-seam fastball has good sinking motion and Nolasco uses it to induce groundballs.  Both fastballs sit in the low 90s.  He also throws a pretty decent curve.  

The scouting report looks pretty good, but Nolasco's career has been disappointing.  He had a wonderful season at age 25 in 2008, posting a 3.52 ERA in 212.1 innings, adding an elite strikeout to walk ratio.  His 124 ERA+ in that season is easily a career-high.  In fact, Nolasco didn't crack a 100 ERA+ again until 2013, barely eclipsing league-average at 101.  Back in '08, Nolasco also posted a 75.7% strand rate, a figure he hasn't even sniffed since.  His career rate is now 68.7%, nearly five points below the average for the National League.  A low strand rate in a single year could be a fluke, but five years of data likely represents a trend.  That low strand rate means that a lot of batters score when they reach base.  

Other than strand rate, Nolasco's peripheral stats have been pretty good in his career.  His strikeout rate really dipped in 2011 and 2012, but right around that time, he added that two-seam, sinking fastball and upped his ground ball rate.  His walk rate has been elite since his debut.  In fact, of all pitchers with at least 700 innings pitched since 2006, only five pitchers have a better walk rate than Nolasco (of those pitchers, only Cliff Lee and Dan Haren have a better strikeout rate).  His strikeout-to-walk numbers are always good, his ground ball rate is getting better and yet, his ERAs are almost always in the 4.5 neighborhood.  His xFIPs are usually much lower, but that's little consolation to his teams who have not actually received that level of performance from Nolasco.   

Why is he important?

According to FanGraphs, Nolasco has been worth $49.8 million over the past four seasons.  The Twins really nailed that contract figure.  However, those were Nolasco's peak years, from ages 27-30.  Over those years, Nolasco has averaged 2.725 fWAR, a good figure, but not a great figure.  Of course, Baseball Reference calculates their WAR based on performance, not skill.  They have him at 1.35 WAR per season over that span.  Not great.  That said, Nolasco has been pretty durable in his career.  He has thrown at least 185 innings in 5 of the past 6 seasons.  The Twins have to be sick of calling up AAA starters over and over.  If Nolasco's career thus far is any indication, he should make nearly every start the Twins need from him. 

How good will those starts be?  That's a good question.  He's trending in the right direction.  In 2013, he posted a 3.70 ERA, his best since 2008.  He did enjoy a new ballpark in the second half (Dodger Stadium), but he had a 3.85 ERA with Miami prior to being traded.  His strikeout rate has returned after a two-year lull and he's maintained most of the growth in ground ball rate that he gained during those same 2011-2012 seasons.  As pointed out earlier, he's always had an elite walk rate.  If it all comes together, he could be a durable and reliable starter in 2014. 

Paul the Positive Puma's Take:

This was an exciting move.  The Twins don't hand out big contracts like Nolasco's.  It was surprising to say the least, but it was a good surprise.  I am fully aware that Nolasco is not an Ace.  He's a good starter, but he isn't going to lead the team to the playoffs.  He could have some good seasons though.  I really like this move because it represents something.  The Twins are committed to winning again.  They are trying to make the team better in the present while building for the future.  They might not be willing to raise payroll just yet, but they are willing to spend some money on a team that is unlikely to contend right now. 

That means a lot to me as a fan.  I feel confident that this organization is on the rebound.  I expect Nolasco to be good in 2014 and therefore, he will help the Twins win games and get out of this three-year rut. 

Peter the Pessimistic Puma's Take:

Oh goody, a guy who "underperforms" compared with his peripheral stats.  Awesome.  We all know that expected earned runs count in the standings.  We all know that a good strikeout-to-walk ratio gives teams a bonus win at the end of the year.  We all know who has the best career xFIP.  I care about stats too, but when the stats don't show you anything, then why use them?  It's great that Nolasco's xFIPs are always lower than his ERAs.  However, it's been five seasons and he consistently fails to perform as expected.  Hasn't that become his trend?  I bet he'll look great on paper in 2014 and still have an ERA over 4. 

I know I'm going to get accused of a hindsight bias here, but I would have rather had Matt Garza, Ubaldo Jimenez, Josh Johnson, and even Bronson Arroyo when you consider contract and performance.  Garza is just better and signed a better contract.  Jimenez represents upside and risk, something the Twins are allergic to.  Johnson was a lottery ticket, but one with a massive jackpot.  Arroyo actually exceeds his peripherals, but why would you want a guy who actually performs?  I'll bet that Ervin Santana joins this group as well, considering he is still unsigned and likely to ink a reasonable deal.  The Twins struck quickly this off-season, which I applaud.  I think they missed the target though.

What to look for in '14:

Has he found his balance?  Over the years, Nolasco seems to be trading strikeouts for ground balls.  He did this with poor results in 2011 and 2012, but he seemed to have found the proper balance in 2013.  He's mixing in more sinking fastballs to get ground balls, but he's also throwing his slider with more frequency (compared with 2011-2012) and getting more strikeouts as a result.  Both of those pitches are effective in their own way, and he was a very balanced pitcher compared with MLB averages last season:

2013 ML Avg
Nolasco 2013
But then, that's the thing with Nolasco.  Most of his numbers look great, but the results don't always match.  If last season was an indication that he's figured out how to "pitch," then the Twins may have signed a guy right at the start of his personal peak.  The Twins infield defense is pretty good and Nolasco clearly doesn't have home run issues.  Nolasco limits walks at an elite level and he can get a strikeout when he needs it.  The recipe is there, we'll just have to see how the soup turns out. 

I'll be back tomorrow with the 3rd most important Twins player in 2014.  Have a nice day, everyone!

If you haven't been paying close attention, I'm counting down the 14 most important Twins players for the 2014 season.  This was just one part in a 14-part series.  If you missed any of the previous installments, just click here as I have put them all in one nice, tidy location for you.  I'm the best.

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