The Miami Marlins' roster was left decimated by the fire sale trade between the Fish and the Toronto Blue Jays, and the area that was hit hardest was the team's starting pitcher rotation. By trading Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle, the Marlins left themselves very few starting pitchers with which to work and forced themselves to turn to veteran Marlin Ricky Nolasco as the team's de facto ace.
Once upon a time, this would not have been a concern. Following a stellar 2008 season, Nolasco opened the 2009 campaign as the team's Opening Day starter. Of course, just one season later, the Marlins and their fans could not trust Nolasco's performance, as he put up one of the most confusing seasons in pitching history. He has failed to meet expectations ever since, and four years later, he has returned to the top of the rotation a completely different, but still enigmatic, pitcher.
1. Ricky Nolasco
Nolasco enters the 2013 season with only one year left on his three-year, $26.5 million extension signed in 2011. Since that extension was signed, he has hardly been worth the money typically assigned to players who receive three-year extensions in arbitration; since 2011, Nolasco has thrown 397 innings of mediocre baseball, with a 4.58 ERA and 3.70 FIP. If you think that FIP is not a pedestrian figure, you would be correct; among pitchers with at least 200 innings in the last two years, Nolasco's fielding-independent pitching numbers are on par with respectable starters like Edwin Jackson, Justin Masterson, and Max Scherzer. That kind of company usually earns you praise as a strong third or fourth starter on a contending team.
But Nolasco's ERA indicates over the same time span indicates a pitcher closer to the talent level of Travis Wood, John Danks, or Jeremy Guthrie. In other words, his results have rarely matched his supposedly fielding-independent performance, and they have failed to do so in a magnificent way. Only four pitchers in the last two years have had a greater difference between their FIP and ERA than Nolasco, and those four pitchers currently are either struggling for a fifth starter role (Joe Blanton) or close to being out of a job entirely (the rest).
So who is Ricky Nolasco then? If anyone knew, they could stand to make some serious money from the Marlins, who would have loved to know the answer to that question in 2009. What we do know are a number of trends that may continue into 2013. First, Nolasco has slowly implemented a change in his pitching that has led to fewer strikeouts. In 2010, he struck out 147 batters in 157 2/3 innings, which translated to a 22.1 percent clip. The following season, he whiffed just 148 batters in a career-high 206 innings, translating to a 16.6 percent clip. That six percent dive in strikeouts between 2010 and 2011 was followed by another drop of 1.6 percent to 15.0 percent in 2012. It is highly suspected that Nolasco's repertoire changed in a way that led to him getting fewer strikeouts, perhaps in an attempt to control some of his other problems.
It sure seemed to have helped in one department: home runs. Nolasco has allowed 38 home runs in 397 innings in the last two years after giving up 47 round-trippers in 342 2/3 innings from 2009 to 2010. This change was stable between 2011 and 2012, indicating some level of legitimate skill change rather than a fluke year. The result is also backed by a change in ground ball rate, as Nolasco's ground ball rate went up from 39.1 percent between 2009 and 2010 to 45.8 percent in the last two years. In short, Nolasco made the trade-off to reduce his strikeouts and gain ground balls, and this move has also made his fly balls less homer-prone as well.
How has he differed in terms of performance? Not much.
The massive difference between his ERA and FIP are still present, albeit in smaller doses. His fielding-independent numbers have ticked downwards slightly, but not enough to signify anything drastic. Despite the extreme change in the style of performance, the results for Nolasco have more or less been the same; the drop in home runs has perfectly made up for the drop in strikeouts, and the result is the same pitcher we have seen for the last four years.
So even with this change, why should we expect any different in 2013?
Aside from PECOTA, the systems are mostly in agreement with who Nolasco is at this point. With four years of history in the books, it is hard to imagine that Nolasco's ongoing issue with men on base is a fluke. Despite similar batting lines between bases empty and men on base situations in the last two years, his FIP was still 0.3 runs and 1.0 runs higher with runners on base in 2012 and 2011 respectively. This likely has a large part to do with why Nolasco is continuing to struggle with converging his ERA and FIP numbers, and the projection systems expect similar, if not better resolved, issues in 2013.
Ricky Nolasco has an average ERA between the non-PECOTA projections of 4.30. His average FIP in those same systems is 3.80. Weighing his ERA heavier thanks to the known four-year history of high ERAs yields a projected ERA of 4.15.
Projection: 190 IP, 2.1 WAR
This projection expects Nolasco to throw 190 innings, which is a likely bet based on his track record over the last four years. It also expects him to approach a 4.00 ERA, which he has not done since 2008. A 4.15 mark would be the lowest for him since that time, but he does have some added advantages this year. The Marlins' infield is markedly better in 2013 compared to the last few years. The left side will be populated by good defenders in Adeiny Hechavarria and Placido Polanco rather than concerning defenders like Jose Reyes and Hanley Ramirez. If the problems Nolasco had had anything to do with defense, which is a likely proposition, his performance should improve with a more athletic and less encumbered left side behind him.
Still, this is still a risky bet for a pitcher whose track record is spotty at best. Nolasco will definitely give the Marlins innings, but will he be able to perform at anything close to resembling his peak, or will the last four years remain solid proof that Nolasco is the one shining example of a pitcher defying defense-independent pitching analysis in the bad way?