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2011 Marlins Season Review: Nolasco, the Enigma

Since I missed my season review from Monday, I figured I would grace this Thursday with another edition of the season review series. The Marlins have been looking for a starter to follow in the footsteps of ace Josh Johnson, and if there was a season for this to happen, it would have been the 2011 year. Unfortunately, the team's second-highest pitcher and the recipient of a three-year extension in 2010, Ricky Nolasco, was unable to deliver on the promise he showed early in his career. Despite that, his peripherals continued to shine in 2011 despite the ugly ERA.

Ricky Nolasco 33 206 16.6 4.9 4.67 3.54 3.5 0.4

The Good

One look at Nolasco's peripherals (and his peripherals-based FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement, or fWAR) and you might suspect that Nolasco was once again decent in 2011. This is the fourth straight season that Nolasco has posted a FIP under 4.00, His 3.5 fWAR was around the vicinity of such pitchers as Mark Buehrle, Gio Gonzalez, Derek Holland, and Mat Latos. If you were to look solely at those names and numbers, it would be a lock that Nolasco had a solid season on the mound.

Nolasco's walk rate dropped for the second straight season, down to just 4.9 percent and a tad higher than his career-low 4.8 percent from 2008. His ground ball rate was the other number that seemed to jump out of the ordinary; after posting a metronome-like 38 to 40 percent rate since 2008, Nolasco's grounders jumped up to 45 percent in 2011. Subsequently, his fly ball rate fell to a career-low 31 percent, which helped to explain why he gave up just 20 home runs this year. That total was the lowest since he became a full-time starter in 2008.

The Bad

The good about Ricky Nolasco's season has been mostly the same as the good in rest of his years since 2008. The one downfall of his peripherals was the odd drop in strikeouts in 2011. His strikeouts fell far last season, down to just 16.6 percent from a previous three-year mark of 22.8 percent. A good deal of that came from a lack of swinging strikes, as his swinging strike rate fell to 8.9 percent after three seasons at around 10 percent. Hitters were making more contact on pitches both inside and outside of the zone in 2011, meaning that the problems Nolasco had in missing bats were occurring everywhere he pitched.

However, that alone would not have sunk his season, as evidenced by his strong FIP despite the lower strikeout rate. No, the problem with Nolasco was that once again he was unable to create outs when runners were on base.

Nolasco PA K% BB% GB% HR/FB% FIP
Bases Empty 494 18.4 3.4 44.7 8.2 3.07
Runners On 397 14.4 6.8 45.6 11.4 4.07

If you have read my writing on Ricky Nolasco before on Marlin Maniac, you would know that this is an ongoing and continually disturbing trend. He consistently underperforms when runners are on base, and it is not just a matter of BABIP; in fact, hitters hit .348 on balls in play with the bases empty versus Nolasco this season while hitting only .311 with runners on. This has happened each season since that confusingly disastrous 2009, and the trend has yet to subside.

In this season, Nolasco struggled in all three major peripherals with runners on, as his strikeouts dropped while his walks and home runs rose. The 4.07 FIP may sound reasonable, but obviously with this split it is deceiving. With the bases empty, home runs are worth less while walks are worth more, and in the case of situations with runners on, home runs are obviously worth significantly more. The FIP numbers mostly serve to compare the values, but the difference in quality in terms of runs allowed is going to be worse than that gap suggests. Tomorrow, we will begin digging into the numbers deeper to figure out just what Nolasco is doing to cause all of these problems, but suffice to say that this effect remains very real and very damning towards his chances of being a very successful pitcher in the majors.

Needless to say, this was the major reason why Nolasco struggled again in 2011. Furthermore, his struggles looked worse given that the league in general trended downwards in run scoring. In fact, his ERA in 2011 was 21 percent worse than the league average after park adjustment, which is actually worse than his performance in 2009 (5.09 ERA, 19 percent worse than league average). The downward trend in scoring is making Nolasco's struggles to strand runners even more apparent.

What do you Fish Stripers say? Have you noticed changes in how Nolasco worked with runners on in 2011? What did you think of his 2011 performance?