Ricky Nolasco and the Problem With Runners On: Introduction

After Fish Stripes run through the data, we hope to turn that frown on Ricky Nolasco upside down and find out what the heart of his problem with runners on base really is. (Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images)

If you read my various works at the old Marlin Maniac, one of the recurring themes you may have heard about is the enigmatic performance of Ricky Nolasco over the last four seasons. Since his 2008 "breakout" campaign, Nolasco has had consistently strong peripherals in terms of strikeouts and walks, but he has lacked the ability to follow that up with good run performances. Take a look at his numbers over the past four seasons.

Nolasco, Year IP K% BB% ERA FIP Avg WAR
2011 206 16.6 4.9 4.67 3.54 1.7
2010 157 2/3 22.1 5.0 4.51 3.86 2.3
2009 185 24.8 5.6 5.06 3.34 2.1
2008 212 1/3 21.4 4.8 3.52 3.77 3.3
2008-2011 761 21.1 5.1 4.41 3.62 9.4

These peripherals and FIP numbers indicate that Nolasco was firmly among the above average starters in baseball, yet his ERA puts him squarely among the worst regulars in the game. Since 2008. Nolasco's 3.62 FIP is 21st among major league starters with at least 600 innings pitched; his name is sandwiched between Johan Santana and Josh Beckett. However, among those same starters, his 4.41 ERA ranks as the 15th worst in baseball in that same span; his name in that list is sandwiched in between Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo.

So what is the cause of these discrepancies in performance? It turns out that there is one area where Nolasco consistently has struggled since 2008, and that is with runners on base.

Bases Empty, Year PA K% BB% GB% HR/FB% FIP
2011 494 18.4 3.4 44.7 14.2 3.28
2010 411 22.9 3.9 38.4 9.0 3.18
2009 465 29.0 3.9 40.6 13.8 2.63
2008 538 22.9 3.5 39.1 8.2 3.42
2008-2011 1908 23.2 3.7 40.9 11.4 3.13
Runners On, Year PA K% BB% GB% HR/FB% FIP
2011 397 14.4 6.8 45.6 5.0 3.87
2010 254 20.9 6.7 42.8 15.4 3.67
2009 320 18.8 8.1 36.6 10.0 3.99
2008 330 19.1 7.0 38.0 11.4 4.09
2008-2011 1301 17.9 7.1 41.0 9.5 3.92

There is almost no doubt about it; over the last four seasons, Nolasco has been a significantly worse pitcher with runners on than with the bases empty. And of course, it does not take a genius to figure out that if you are worse with runners on, you are going to underperform your peripheral performances. Despite the fact that Nolasco's strikeout and walk rates have him among the better pitchers in baseball over the past four seasons, the noticeable dip in both those categories when he pitches with runners on have devalued his overall performance. With the bases empty, Nolasco's strikeout numbers are well above average and his control numbers are elite; however, when runners get on board against him, he reverts to being closer to a league average pitcher in both those parameters.

Nolasco's unevenness in distribution of performance have intrigued me ever since 2009, when he experienced one of the biggest ERA - FIP gulfs ever witnessed. Back then, I did a series of investigations using Pitch f/x to determine what exactly was happening with Nolasco that season when runners got on base. At the time, I had little in the way of resources for gathering Pitch f/x data without a database and even less in the way of sample size. Now, two years after that dreadful season, I think I gathered just enough of a sample to re-do much of what I did in that old study and re-examine Nolasco with more sizable samples. To that end, I reintroduce my study on Ricky Nolasco and the Stretch / Runners On Problem today!

Methodology and the Basic Data

Today, I will only introduce the methodology of the study and the basic data that I can gather from the study. I looked at all of Nolasco's pitches since 2008 against right-handed hitters only (to eliminate any platoon-based effects) and split them between data with the bases empty and with runners on. In total, there were 3888 pitches thrown against righties with the bases empty since 2008, compared to 1748 pitches thrown with runners on in that same time span. I examined a variety of different factors regarding those pitches, the first of which I will share with you today.

Pitch Selection and Basics

Pitch, Bases Empty # Usage% Velocity Horiz Break Vert Break
Fastball (FF) 1931 49.7 91.3 -4.4 9.4
Slider (SL) 928 23.9 83.9 2.1 1.1
Curveball (CU) 731 18.8 76.3 6.1 -6.0
Cutter (FC) 241 6.2 88.1 -3.6 4.7
Changeup (CH) 57 1.5 84.2 -6.1 2.3

Pitch, Runners On # Usage% Velocity Horiz Break Vert Break
Fastball (FF) 764 43.7 91.3 -4.3 9.0
Slider (SL) 588 33.6 83.6 2.1 0.4
Cutter (FC) 199 11.4 89.4 -6.0 5.2
Curveball (CU) 162 9.3 76.7 7.0 -6.8
Changeup (CH) 35 2.0 85.0 -7.1 2.8

These numbers basically do not say anything that we would not expect from any pitcher's approach between a bases-empty or runners-on situation. Nolasco did not really change his fastball usage much when you take into account his "cutter" pitch usage as well; in both base states, Nolasco threw his fastest pitches around 55 percent of the time. The major change between corresponds with a 10 percent drop in curveball usage with a subsequent 10 percent increase in slider usage. This also should not surprise anyone, as curveballs are generally not thrown as much with runners on due to their slow path and the likelihood of runners taking bases more often with heavy curveball use.

Perhaps more importantly, none of the "basic" parameters of the pitches really changed. The horizontal and vertical breaks were similar enough in the pitches that were almost certainly keyed correctly; the only differences we see are in the break of the cutter (which could have been confused as a slow fastball in some cases) and the curveball to an extent. The velocities were static, meaning that there was nothing changing mechanically that caused a drop in velocity. With no major changes to velocity or break, it may be safe to assume that Nolasco is not physically pitching worse with runners on. His pitches are doing much of the same thing, which could mean that his approach (or the approach of opposing hitters) may be the difference maker in this situation.

I have not yet dug up all the answers to the questions about Nolasco and his statistical discrepancies, but over the course of the next few weeks, I hope to iron out why some of Nolasco's problems have come about and see if there is anything the Marlins' coaching staff can do to make him a more effective pitcher, if it is possible. Tune in next week for more graphs, data, and analysis on Ricky Nolasco.

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