Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Should we be worried about Ricky Nolasco?

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:


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.    

No comments:

Post a Comment