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Ricky Nolasco: Marlins Pitch F/X scouting report

The Miami Marlins saw the re-debut of Ricky Nolasco as the team's ace yesterday. Yesterday's Nolasco looked a lot more like the 2009 and 2010 version than the 2011 and 2012 version. What are the differences between these two?

Is Ricky Nolasco changing his stuff again? How have his pitches changed from 2009 to 2012?
Is Ricky Nolasco changing his stuff again? How have his pitches changed from 2009 to 2012?
Rob Carr

The Miami Marlins saw the 2013 season debut of Ricky Nolasco in yesterday's 2-0 loss to the Washington Nationals. They also saw an interestingly effective version of Nolasco, one that played very differently than his profile from the last two years. Amid the consistent inability to match his usually strong peripherals, Nolasco had been undergoing a quiet metamorphosis over the past two years.

Nolasco, Seasons K% UIBB% GB% HR/FB% ERA FIP
2009-2010 23.7 4.8 39.1 11.7 4.81 3.58
2011-2012 16.0 4.3 45.8 9.3 4.58 3.70

In the last two years, Nolasco has been a completely different pitcher. Both versions of Nolasco are restricting their walk totals, but it seems almost as though the 2011 to 2012 version has compromised the strikeout component in favor of limiting home runs. The latest version has both increased his ground ball rate and decreased his HR/FB rate, but the strikeout rate has fallen desperately. Out of the 139 pitchers that had at least 200 innings from 2009 to 2010, Nolasco had the 11th-best strikeout rate in baseball. Out of the 139 pitchers with the same number of innings from 2011 to 2012, Nolasco's rate was the 38th-worst.

So what made the potential change between the old Nolasco and the new Nolasco? Is the 2013 Nolasco heading more towards the former or the latter? Let's use the Pitch F/X cards available at Brooks Baseball to help us find out.

Pitch F/X: The Basics

Here are the 2009-2010 basic statistics via Pitch F/X. I adjusted the curveball data from the site to lump the two categories together. Otherwise, data is unadjusted and follows Brooks Baseball's pitch classifications.

Nolasco, 2009-2010 Count Frequency% Velocity (mph) Horiz. Break (in) Vert. Break (in)
Four-Seam Fastball 2418 44.2 92.2 -4.3 9.5
Two-Seam Fastball 372 6.8 90.2 -9.8 4.7
Slider 1351 24.7 84.6 2.0 1.0
Curveball 814 14.9 76.1 7.7 -7.5
Splitter 512 9.4 85.3 -8.2 2.9

Here is the 2011-2012 data.

Nolasco, 2009-2010 Count Frequency% Velocity (mph) Horiz. Break (in) Vert. Break (in)
Four-Seam Fastball 1782 29.4 91.1 -4.2 8.0
Two-Seam Fastball 1145 18.9 90.7 -8.7 4.7
Slider 1486 24.5 84.1 2.1 0.4
Curveball 910 15.0 75.7 8.3 -7.4
Splitter 743 12.2 82.1 -6.0 3.1

What can we tell just from looking at this data? Immediately you can note one reason for the increase in home run suppression for the new Nolasco. Nolasco's sinker rate went up in 2011-2012, up to almost 19 percent of his pitches. With the close proximity of the sinker and four-seamer on the chart, you could question whether this could be simple misclassfication, but the overall vertical break for all fastballs went down from the first period to the second. The two-seamer's sink remained unchanged, but the four-seamer was dipping more in the latter years than the former, indicating that there is indeed some change in the form of a more sinking fastball.

In fact, the primary change between the entirety of the two periods lies in the increased use in the two-seamer. The 15 percent drop in usage of the four-seamer, according to this classification system, went almost entirely into increasing the sinker usage. A small amount went into an increased use of the splitter pitch as well, but the slider and curveball rates remained identical, and the breaks of those pitches remained very similar.

The increased sink on his fastballs easily helps to explain the ground ball rates and the home runs, and it does seems as though Nolasco put in a concerted effort to making this change happen. But why did the strikeout rates fall?

Pitch F/X: Performance Metrics

Here is Nolasco's 2009-2010 data.

Nolasco. 2009-2010 B/CS Swing% Whiff% BIP GB% BABIP SLGCON
Four-Seam Fastball 1.7 46.4 15.3 416 28.7 .359 .719
Two-Seam Fastball 1.9 35.8 8.4 70 52.1 .333 .528
Slider 1.8 55.0 35.0 257 42.8 .294 .479
Curveball 1.5 36.0 22.9 126 49.8 .237 .532
Splitter 3.9 56.4 30.8 116 51.6 .301 .359

This is how it compares to his 2011-2012 data.

Nolasco. 2011-2012 B/CS Swing% Whiff% BIP GB% BABIP SLGCON
Four-Seam Fastball 1.9 47.3 9.9 381 37.8 .322 .567
Two-Seam Fastball 1.5 44.9 7.8 298 54.5 .347 .513
Slider 2.2 52.0 32.9 301 44.3 .330 .485
Curveball 1.5 36.0 22.9 126 49.8 .297 .555
Splitter 4.8 54.1 27.3 176 54.3 .264 .330

What can we glean from this data? The reasoning for Nolasco's move towards fewer four-seam fastballs becomes fairly clear when you look at their results. The fastball in 2009 and 2010 was absolutely crushed by opposing hitters; they were swinging at it a decent amount, making average contact, but then depositing the pitch over fences and all around the outfield. The .359 BABIP and .719 slugging percentage on contacted balls (including home runs) were through the roof, and part of the reason may be attributed to his poor ground ball rate (just 28 percent) on those fastballs.

His new "four-seam fastball," the one with significantly more sink, has produced more grounders and been hit less hard, but it is still his hardest-hit pitch. The increased use of the sinker has yielded similar results from the former and latter time periods, including similar ground ball rates and balls in play results.

So why have the strikeouts fallen? One place to look to evaluate this is the status of his breaking pitches, but those seem unchanged from 2009 all the way through 2012. The two time periods show almost exactly similar results in terms of swings and whiffs, meaning that Nolasco is getting a similar number of strikes from those pitches. The called strike rates, indicated by the balls-to-called-strikes column, are also fairly similar. Indeed, the slider and curveball are both consistent and consistently good, which matches the classic subjective scouting report that Nolasco has a strong secondary repertoire.

The problem goes back to his fastball. The drop in use of the old four-seamer lost a lot of whiffs; the whiff rate on the four-seam fastball fell from 15.2 percent to 9.9 percent, and the increased use of the two-seamer hurt the swing-and-miss department more. Both pitches were still being put in the strike zone with classic Nolasco precision. but hitters were far more likely to put the ball in play. And while the change has decreased how badly the fastball has been hit, it is still getting hit harder than the other pitches, and the average ball in play is still going to be worth more to hitters than a swing and a miss.

This actually also fits the classic Nolasco scouting report that his fastball is his primary weakness. Nolasco's fastball sits in the low-90's and has no added deception; in the 2009-2010 time period, he was throwing what appeared to be a classic four-seamer with little movement, but doing so at a low velocity. Now, he is throwing more of a sinker offering, but it is still a weak pitch that gets hit hard when put in play. Perhaps part of the reason for his large BABIP over his career is that his fastball is too hittable, and that has led to most of his difficulties, especially if he ever gets behind on hitters. Despite the changes, all Nolasco seems to have done was shift how ineffective his fastball is rather than increase its effectiveness.

2013 Nolasco?

How does this compare to the 2013 Nolasco we saw on Opening Day? Nolasco threw more two-seamers than four-seamers yesterday, according to the raw Pitch F/X data. He also threw almost exactly the same percentage of sliders and curveballs that he has thrown for the last few years, so that has yet to change. His splitter usage (confused by Pitch F/X as a changeup) also remains the same. So in terms of repertoire, this more closely matches his 2011 and 2012 performances than his old ones.

So why the extra strikeouts? Chalk it up to a nice day with his slider and curveball perhaps. Just using yesterday's game as an example, it looks as though Nolasco is still aiming for more ground balls and fewer strikeouts despite the decent performance on whiffs.