For years, the Miami Marlins have waited for Ricky Nolasco to regress to his stellar peripherals. In 2012, the team counted on him less behind a number of good starters, but his peripherals caught up and struggled alongside his ERA this year.
The Miami Marlins were counting particularly on the ability of Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, and Anibal Sanchez to help carry their rotation. But the team knew that they had two good options remaining at the back end of the rotation in Ricky Nolasco and Carlos Zambrano. If either player played up to their decent talent level, the Marlins could have gotten away with two of the better fourth and fifth starters in baseball. Prior to the season, we expected Nolasco to be a durable, slightly below-average starter for the Marlins in 2012.
It turns out that Nolasco could not get his peripherals to match up with his ERA once again.
Ricky Nolasco essentially matched his career numbers in 2012 by putting up a 4.48 ERA and 3.87 FIP very similar to his career 4.49 ERA and 3.83 FIP. The way he did it, however, was not as effective as it had been in previous years. From 2008 to 2010, Nolasco struck out 22.8 percent of batters faced while walking while walking 5.1 percent of those hitters. Despite that, he put up a 4.31 ERA during that time period. Now, in the past two seasons now, his strikeout rate has fallen to 15.8 percent, a drop of seven percent.
Nolasco's swinging strike rate has gone down to under nine percent in each of the last two seasons, while his contact rate has gone up above 81 percent in that same time period. Nolasco's 81.7 percent contact rate in 2012 was similar to struggling starters like Justin Masterson, Josh Beckett, and Mike Minor this season. Without the ability to miss bats, Nolasco's peripherals suddenly went on the decline.
That being said, Nolasco's contact rate in 2012 was also close to that of Cliff Lee's, and Lee had a stellar year. Then again, part of Lee's success this season came from his extreme lack of walks, and part of the decline in play by Nolasco was due to his slight increase in walks. His 5.7 percent walk rate is his highest since 2009, and that was a season in which he struck out 24 percent of batters faced. Once upon a time, Nolasco was one of the elite pitchers in terms of strikeout-to-walk ratio, but his 2.6 ratio this year marks the lowest of his career since his rookie year. Part of the potential problem in Nolasco's game is that the contact rate on pitches outside the zone has gone up in the last two years, up to 68 and 63 percent in 2011 and 2012 respectively from a career rate of 64 percent.
So with the decline of Nolasco's strikeout numbers, why has his FIP continued to be passable? The answer lies int the fact that, also in the last two seasons, Nolasco has drastically decreased his home run rate, down to just 2.2 percent from 3.2 percent from 2008 to 2010. He has done this by upping his ground ball rate each of the last two years as well, and this may have been done thanks to an increase in the use of a two-seam fastball in his repertoire. It has been effective at getting ground balls, but it seems to have reduced the effectiveness of his fastball, as both his fastball and two-seamer have lost whiffs compared to their career marks. Nolasco induced whiffs on just four percent of his four-seamers this season versus seven percent in his career. Add that to a slight decrease in slider usage and you can see why his whiffs have decreased over the years.
One thing that remained a problem this season was Nolasco's well-documented struggle with runners on base. In years past, he would get a lot more strikeouts and a lot fewer walks with the bases empty, as evidenced by his career 20.6 percent strikeout rate and 4.6 percent walk rate with the bases empty. In 2012, the problem remained, as his split of FIp with the bases empty versus runners on was about 0.3 runs, which is similar to his career split. It was not as pronounced, however, as it had been from 2008 to 2010, when the problems first became apparent.
All in all, nothing really went right for Nolasco in 2012, marking the fourth straight year in which the Marlins were disappointed by his inability to strand runners. This year continued a two-year trend of Nolasco having worked to get more ground balls at the expense of strikeouts, but once again that has not helped him recover the edge he had in 2008. Fewer strikeouts and more ground balls have still left Nolasco struggling to find the right formula for success.