Ricky Nolasco's Miami Marlins career is over as of this past weekend. His final start against the Atlanta Braves was a memorable one, as it included his 1000th strikeout. Nolasco is the first Marlins pitcher to ever reach that milestone, and while he certainly will not be the last, it may very well take a few more years to break that record and surpass Nolasco.
That could easily be said for a number of other statistics involving Nolasco. Choose a pitching category and it is very likely Nolasco leads in that statistic. Strikeouts? He has 169 more than Josh Johnson. Pitcher wins? Nolasco has 13 more than his next competitor, Dontrelle Willis. Home runs allowed? He has given up 53 more than Willis. Hits? Given up 256 more than Willis.
Of course, the big reason for that is that Nolasco has also done one feat no other Marlins pitcher has ever accomplished: survive as long as he did as a Marlin. Nolasco leads all Marlins pitchers in innings pitched and games started as a Marlin, at 1225 2/3 innings and 197 games started. That is 203 innings and 35 starts, around a full season and change, more than Willis. The longest-tenured Marlins pitcher in team history has finally left the building with seven and a half seasons of Marlins lore to his name.
But where does that leave him in the annals of Marlins history? Is he more like Dontrelle Willis or Josh Johnson or more like Pat Rapp or Chris Volstad?
The argument for Nolasco lies in longevity, but he has longevity on his side for a reason. After all, this is the Marlins we are talking about: if a player struggled even the slightest bit, or got expensive unnecessarily, they would be sent away unceremoniously. With Nolasco, the Marlins saw enough to keep him around for one extra season by signing him to a three-year extension that bought out a free agent year. Only one other Marlin, Josh Johnson, received a contract that bough out free agent years.
And it was not as though the Fish offered Nolasco a deal without a reason. Among all Marlins starters with at least 400 innings pitched, Nolasco ranked seventh in team history in FIP with a 3.81 mark, right alongside considerable players like Anibal Sanchez (3,80), A,J. Burnett (3.71), and Brad Penny (3.93). The other Marlins lived in a time in which it was inconvenient for the Fish to offer extensions. The Marlins only decided on Johnson and Nolasco after they knew they would get the new stadium. Burnett and Penny left for monetary reasons; Sanchez left because by the time he performed well, it was too late too offer a shorter-term extension that the Marlins wanted to use.
Nolasco held promise, and the Marlins bet on the 2009 and 2010 seasons being flukes. It was a good decision based on his strikeout and walk rates, which were always stellar despite mediocre seasons. The Fish got just enough of a discount that allowed them to snag Nolasco for what seemed like a fair price heading into his third and fourth arbitration years.
It also helped that Nolasco offered a second aspect of longevity that few pitchers not named Dontrelle Willis ever gave the Fish: health. Nolasco missed two starts in 2009 due to a demotion during which he was struggling. In 2010, he missed five or six starts with a torn meniscus injury at the end of the season. Aside from that, he has remained entirely healthy as a Marlin after 2007, which was more than could be said about players like Johnson and Sanchez. Almost every Marlin missed time past that failed 2007 campaign, but Nolasco remained a fixture in the rotation, and he and his health deserves a good deal of credit for his team record 1225 2/3 innings.
The problem with longevity is that we only celebrate it if it was effective. While Nolasco's FIP and strikeout and walk numbers were always good throughout his run with the Fish, the lingering question surrounding was if he would ever match his ERA to those good numbers. From 2009 until this year, Nolasco never lived up to his peripheral statistics, posting a poor 4.68 ERA in close to 740 innings. Over one or even two seasons, maybe that can be expected to even out. Over a four-season span, it becomes harder and harder to believe (although it is still possible).
Nevertheless, a look into Nolasco's history is not about predicting the future, but rather determining how well the past went. If we go by Wins Above Replacement metrics, we can see the difference in how the calculations are made can affect the value of Nolasco's performance. FanGraphs's system uses FIP as the indicator of a pitcher's performance, and under that system, Nolasco has been worth 12 wins over the last four years. That would make him a three-win per season pitcher, akin to the career of Willis with the Fish according to FanGraphs. However, if you look at Baseball-Reference, which takes a pitcher's full runs allowed and takes away an estimated defensive contribution, you get a value of just 4.7 WAR, an average of just over one win per season. Baseball Prospectus's WARP system uses its own method for subtracting defensive contribution, and it comes out to something in between at eight wins total, or two wins per season.
Three different systems evaluate Nolasco's defense-independent capabilities at three different levels from 2009 to 2012, the most confusing seasons of Nolasco's career. One has him being good, another average, and a third bad. In the end, Nolasco was valued at average (and earning his money) in the trade with the Dodgers. Indeed, that may ultimately become the verdict of Nolasco's career as a Marlin: average, if a bit disappointing.
Ultimately. Nolasco's legacy, much like his performance since 2008, is in the eye of the beholder. Watching him pitch is an exercise is never knowing what might happen. One night, Nolasco can strike out 16 batters, including nine in a row. In another night in that same season, he could pitch three innings and give up eight runs. It was always hard to tell which Nolasco you might get, and that extends to the evaluation of his career.
But let's say that, in the end, the real Nolasco performance was somewhere in between Bad Ricky (the Baseball-Reference WAR version) and Good Ricky (the FanGraphs WAR version). If that's the case, Nolasco may have been an average overall pitcher who threw one All-Star caliber year with the team and stuck around for a little more than seven years.
Dontrelle Willis was a World Series hero, a Cy Young runner-up, and a long-time Marlin, and he is revered. While Nolasco was never as good as 2005 D-Train, he was never as bad as 2007 D-Train either. Overall, you cannot argue that Nolasco was even all that close to Willis in his legacy, but we as Marlins fans respect Willis in large part because he pitched so many innings of solid (and at times great) baseball for the Fish. Nolasco did so to a lesser degree, and for that he does deserve our respect as well.
Is Nolasco a Willis or a Rapp? A Johnson or a Volstad? Maybe he is none of those guys. Maybe he is A.J. Burnett, or Anibal Sanchez, guys who pitched for the Marlins, left, and who will be remembered for some things and not others. Ricky Nolasco has a place in Marlins pitching history. It may not be on the pantheon, but he has a plaque somewhere.