Ricky Nolasco and the Problem With Runners On: Zone Data

About a month back, I re-introduced the question of why Ricky Nolasco was struggling with runners on. Today, we are going to dive a little more into the question of why Nolasco is struggling. What is happening differently between his work with runners on and with the bases empty?

To start, let us revisit that data since 2008.

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

Again, you can clearly see a major discrepancy in the data. And yet, when we looked at the numbers in terms of pure "stuff," we did not see a major difference in his stuff from with the bases empty compared to with runners on.

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

So where could the difference be? I took a look at some zone data to find out.

Methodology and Terminology

Before we go into it, we should discuss what is being measured here. Once again, we are looking at all pitches Nolasco threw since 2008 against right-handed hitters only. We will look at four different parameters in this case:

Zone%: Percentage of pitches thrown in the strike zone. For the purposes of this study, the strike zone is defined as the area between one foot to either side of middle of the plate horizontally and the average vertical height in feet from the ground of the top and bottom of the zone as defined by MLB Gameday data. This is an approximation of the zone and it is similar to the methodology shown in this John Walsh piece.

Swing%: Percentage of pitches swung at

Called Strike%: Percentage of called strikes over total pitches taken

Whiff%: Percentage of pitches whiffed over total swings

These numbers each give us a few ideas about the approach and results of Nolasco's pitching between the two base states. Zone percentage gives us an idea of how well Nolasco attacked the strike zone with his pitches. Swing percentage could be a measure of how juicy his pitches were to swing at or how well he induced swings. Called strike rate could be a measure of control or how well he hit his spots and the corners. Finally, whiff rate is the most obvious measure of "stuff" among these measurements.

Let's see how Nolasco stacked up with the bases empty first.

Pitch Zone% Swing% Called Strike% Whiff%
FF 62.5 53.4 38.9 17.1
SL 52.5 50.3 38.2 33.2
CU 55.8 37.8 40.0 25.0
FC 63.9 49.0 48.0 21.2
CH 45.6 57.9 16.7 27.3
Total 58.7 49.5 39.3 22.5

Here we see a lot of what we already have come to know about Nolasco and his style of pitching. He is the type of guy who will pound the strike zone, and that is seen in his ability to spot his four most-used pitches in the zone at a rate greater than 50 percent. All three of his fastball, slider, and curveball are all landing in the zone and getting called for strikes at around a 40 percent clip (a ratio of one strike to 1.5 balls). Also, Nolasco is getting hitters to whiff at just about the expected rate on each of his pitches. Compare his work against the average benchmark shown in this 2010 article by Pitch f/x guru and friend of Fish Stripes Harry Pavlidis.

Type # rvERA MPH Swing Whiff Foul B:CS IWZ Chase Watch nkSLG GB% LD% FB% PU% HR/FL%
SL 18722 3.82 84 0.456 0.327 0.317 2.4 0.484 0.304 0.374 0.505 45% 18% 29% 8.4% 7.8%
FS 1841 3.87 84 0.501 0.345 0.298 4.0 0.434 0.340 0.280 0.424 48% 19% 25% 7.3% 6.8%
CH 13325 4.16 83 0.491 0.307 0.291 3.7 0.441 0.325 0.287 0.452 50% 18% 25% 7.1% 6.9%
FC 7230 4.22 87 0.475 0.212 0.389 2.3 0.526 0.275 0.337 0.494 44% 21% 26% 9.3% 6.1%
CU 11156 4.47 77 0.373 0.261 0.327 2.2 0.467 0.254 0.487 0.512 49% 19% 27% 4.8% 8.3%
F4 46115 4.49 92 0.421 0.164 0.438 1.7 0.561 0.226 0.416 0.567 35% 21% 34% 9.6% 7.7%
F2 29551 4.53 91 0.430 0.128 0.391 1.9 0.543 0.239 0.400 0.499 52% 20% 23% 4.5% 7.3%
KN 821 4.88 69 0.445 0.227 0.384 2.7 0.515 0.236 0.348 0.563 37% 20% 32% 10.6% 8.1%
SB 42 5.26 66 0.333 0.071 0.286 2.5 0.429 0.250 0.556 0.111 44% 33% 11% 11.1% 0.0%

You can see that the numbers Nolasco put up for the bolded pitches compare very favorably to the league average. In terms of swings and misses, each of Nolasco's pitches are around the league average. He is way more in the strike zone than the league, which has helped to induce more called strikes but also more swings from hitters. However, given that he is inducing a similar whiff rate on those swings, that cannot be a bad thing.

Now let's take a look at how his numbers are with runners on.

Pitch Zone% Swing% Called Strike% Whiff%
FF 58.8 54.1 33.3 11.4
SL 49.3 55.4 36.6 33.4
CU 51.2 46.9 44.2 26.3
FC 55.3 50.3 36.4 14.0
CH 45.7 62.9 7.7 18.2
Total 54.2 53.6 35.5 20.7

You can tell immediately that there is a large difference to be seen here. The most striking difference is the distinct lack of strikes compared to Nolasco's work with the bases empty. His zone percentage is down four percent and his called strike rate is down a similar number with runners on. Meanwhile, his swing rate is actually up four percent as well. This means that not only has Nolasco hit the zone less with runners on, but that he is getting more swings with those pitches as well. Hitters are whiffing a bit less overall (down two percent) but the large difference can be seen in the whiffs on his fastball and cutter. Given that both pitches are similar enough in velocity to occasionally get intermingled, it is difficult to differentiate the effect on each individual pitch, but the overall decrease in whiff rate is apparent. The slider and curveball seemed to have not lost much in the transition.

Another important thing to note here is the change in usage. Looking at the tables from the previous article, you will note that curveball usage is down a significant amount between the bases empty and runners on states. This makes natural sense, as the curveball is too slow and could potentially allow runners leeway to take extra bases on Nolasco. But unfortunately, it does seem like one of Nolasco's most effective pitches is his curveball. He gets more called strikes and the same number of whiffs on average with the curve as the league average gets. The decrease in curveball usage must have led to a corresponding increase in slider, fastball, and cutter use. As we've noted, Nolasco's fastball has decreased in effectiveness with runners on, in part because he failed to pound the zone as he did with the bases empty. When you compound that with a loss of effective curveball use, you may begin to see part of the reason why all of Nolasco's peripherals suffer with men on base.

Without examining much further for now, we see two interesting points from this data:

1) Nolasco is not hitting the strike zone as often with runners on

2) Nolasco is using less of his effective curveball and more of his less effective fastball and slider with runners on

These two matters may have something to do with the ongoing problem. On our next installment, we will take a look at how Nolasco is doing on batted balls to see if hitters are hitting him harder with runners on base.

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