Miami Marlins starter Ricky Nolasco has not been truly effective for a long time. But once upon a time, people felt that he was better than he was currently performing. In particular, there was a time just a few years ago that we thought Nolasco had the right combination of high strikeouts and low walks that would yield a top-notch starter. In 2009, he struck out 24.8 percent of batters faced. In 2010, he struck out 22.1 percent of them.
Of course, in those two years Nolasco also allowed a 4.81 ERA, so he felt the need to change. Hence, in the last two seasons, Nolasco has transformed into a different pitcher, one who depends on a two-seam fastball to get more ground balls at the expense of fewer strikeouts. We explored this change earlier this year in Nolasco's Pitch F/X scouting report. In it, we found that the increased use of his two-seam fastball has dramatically dropped the amount of whiffs he induces.
But this year, after a few decent strikeout performances, Nolasco mentioned that he misses being a strikeout pitcher.
"It reminded me of that feeling of punching guys out," Nolasco said, of Wednesday's Petco Park outing. "I've thrown well a lot of other times not punching guys out, but it's a different feeling when you're striking guys out and you know you can. Once I felt that feeling it makes me want to be able to do more often."
"You have to go out there and get people out and be efficient," Nolasco said. "That's the most important part. I felt the late life on the slider and that's where I get a lot of my strikeouts. To be able to get that feeling where you're really finishing and getting that extra bite is when the strikeouts come."
The strikeout is a powerful tool, but it has been missing in Nolasco's game for some time. Is it coming back to him this season? Let's take a look at his early 2013 numbers to find out.
On the surface, it does not seem as though Nolasco has returned to whiff-inducing form. A glance at his FanGraphs page shows that he is striking out just 17.4 percent of batters faced this season. This is higher than either endpoint in the last two years, but it is still below his 2008 career-year mark. Once you scroll down, however, an even more important distinction can be made: Nolasco has so far posted the lowest swinging strike rate since his rookie season. This is surprising because it appears he is doing better against hitters with the strikeout despite getting them to swing and miss less often.
Once you check out his Pitch F/X player card on Brooks Baseball, you may see why this has happened. Despite supposedly missing the strikeout, Nolasco has done the one thing he needs to do to decrease his strikeouts: he has increased his two-seamer use. In the last two years, he used the two-seamer approximately 19 percent of the time. That mark has jumped to 26 percent so far this year, which is higher than his four-seam usage.
Nolasco has reverted to being primarily a sinker-type pitcher, but so far it has not helped him do what he wants. Not only has the increased use of the two-seamer decreased his swings and misses (9.5 percent whiff rate this year on a per-swing basis), but it has failed to help him suppress home runs efficiently. He has given up six homers thus far this year and is on pace to allow 21 in 190 innings after only giving up 18 last year. Three of his six homers have come off of the two-seamer, which is doing a terrible job of staying on the ground. The two-seam fastball has only yielded a 37.3 percent ground ball rate thus far this year.
So Nolasco's increased use of his two-seamer has impaired his strikeout ability this year. But what about his slider that he mentions is a key to his strikeouts? Well, according to its whiff rate, it too has lost some bite this season. This early in the year, Nolasco's slider is down to a 27.6 percent whiff rate from a perch of around 33 to 35 percent in the last four years. It is being placed in the zone at about the same rate, but batters are making more contact. In fact, batters are making more contact on all of Nolasco's strong secondary offerings, as his curveball has also lost swing-and-miss effectiveness.
Ricky Nolasco may have whiffed many batters in his last two starts, but his current approach and stuff are not conducive to striking hitters out. With him struggling to get whiffs, it is difficult to imagine him remaining effective with the rest of his declining repertoire. The Marlins should consider trading him while he can still maintain the wool over everyone's eyes.