Ricky Nolasco and the Problem with Runners On: Batted Ball Data

This is an ongoing series regarding Ricky Nolasco and his consistent problems with runners on. See the first two parts here and here.

Last week, we went a little more in-depth into the problems Ricky Nolasco has had in the stretch. This week, we are going to explore another area of Nolasco's game, that being the balls in play that he allowed.

First, let us review the observations we made based on last week's data.

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

We suspect that Nolacso is not hitting the strike zone often enough. Perhaps he is being too careful in order to allow juicy pitches to come through the zone with runners on, with the possibility that they might be crushed. But has avoiding the strike zone assisted Nolasco in getting hit less hard? Let us take a look at the data to find out.

Methodology

For measuring the quality of balls in play, I am going to use three different statistics.

GB%: Self explanatory, this is the ground ball rate. The more ground balls, the fewer balls go out of the yard.

SLGCON: Slugging percentage on contacted balls. This measures slugging percentage on balls that go in play, including home runs. Some pitches naturally lend to higher values on slugging percentage (fastballs, for example) while others lend themselves to lower values (breaking balls)

LWTS: This is an approximate measure of runs allowed per ball in play in this case. This is a more accurate account of value for the balls in play allowed than SLGCON. Keep in mind that I am using average linear weights that do not account for base state; it is very clear that hits with runners on are owrth mo than with the bases empty

Data

How does the data look? Let us start with how each of Nolasco's pitches fared with the bases empty.

Pitch BIP GB% SLGCON LWTS
FF 388 28.4 .631 0.09
SL 166 44.0 .428 0.01
CU 116 44.8 .440 0.01
FC 48 52.1 .646 0.14
CH 13 7.7 .308 -0.07
Total 731 35.7 .550 0.06

These numbers are not all that surprising. Nolasco's fastball appears to be his worst pitch on balls in play, and this does not surprise anyone, as we have already suspected that this is his worst pitch overall and fastballs in general do not do well on contact. The curveball and slider was about equally effective when put in play, getting very similar ground ball rates, SLGCON, and run averages.

Now how do these numbers compare to when Nolasco has runners on?

Pitch BIP GB% SLGCON LWTS
FF 148 32.4 .696 0.13
SL 131 44.3 .405 0.03
FC 53 67.9 .453 0.03
CU 37 48.6 .676 0.08
CH 10 40.0 .700 0.11
Total 379 43.3 .559 0.08

Now, drawing too many conclusions from these numbers clearly should not be done, as we have a very small sample of balls in play. Still, there are some observations to be made here, the most glaring of which is that Nolasco did worse on balls in play with runners on both in SLGCON and linear weights runs. Despite the fact that he dodged more of the strike zone in these situations, he still managed to get hit harder on balls in play. If the strategy was to avoid getting beat by hittable pitches with runners on, then the theory did not work out. He did induce more ground balls, but that may have been a factor based on his increased cutter usage, as the cutter is a high ground ball pitch. Nevertheless, the overall package was less effective with runners on.

One other aspect I found interesting is that Nolasco's slider has remained extremely consistent both in zone data and on balls in play. Essentially, it remains unchanged despite a ten percent uptick in usage with runners on. It turns out that Nolasco has not changed the ratio of fastball-type pitches (fastball and cutter) versus breaking ball pitches (slider and curveball) when going from bases empty to runners on. He has been forced to use less of his curveball, but it turns out his curveball may be inconsistently useful on balls in play. His slider has increased, but it happens to be his better pitch on balls in play. A drop in effectiveness in his curveball and fastball seemed to explain the difference in balls in play effectiveness.

Still, that difference is fairly small; over a sample of 730 balls in play, it would average out to 15 runs. Of course, given that hits are worth more with runners on, it certainly has contributed to his problems. But I suspect that the problem with Nolasco remains in his placement. Next week, we'll take a look at how he is placing and selecting his pitches based on count.

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