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Ricky Nolasco finding some strikeouts in May

Last week, Ricky Nolasco lamented that he missed his strikeouts. He then struck out 11 batters on Sunday, continuing a run of K's in May.

Mike Ehrmann

Last week, following Ricky Nolasco's stellar nine-strikeout start versus the San Diego Padres, he lamented that he missed being a strikeout pitcher like in his days in 2009. Of course, he had been missing the strikeout, and he was still missing the strikeout this season, even despite some decent starts here and there.

But the Miami Marlins' "ace" then struck out 11 batters in eight innings on Sunday against the Arizona Diamondbacks, leading to a 2-1 victory. And that has actually capped a nice four-start stretch in May in which Nolasco has been inducing many, many whiffs.

Nolasco, Month IP K% Swinging Strike%
April 2013 35 1/3 14.2 5.4
May 2013 26 27.6 10.0

In this month, Nolasco has almost doubled his swinging strike and strikeout rates as compared to last month. It is almost as though, in this past month, Nolasco decided to turn the switch to 2009 and turn into the old version of himself. His stellar performance this month has dragged his strikeout numbers back up to respectable levels, and that is the reason why I still felt he was "missing his strikeouts" from way back when. It turns out he is just trying to catch them all up this month.

The added strikeouts are clearly helping his game. That brings his May ERA down to 4.15 and his FIP down to 2.88, Peripherally, his performance this month has been significantly better, but there have not been significant changes in the choices he has made with his pitches. Using the classifications on Nolasco's Brooks Baseball player card and comparing his overall season and May numbers, we see very little difference in the percentages of pitches used. The major difference seen is the difference in usage of his two-seam fastball and slider, as his sliders have gone up four percent this month while his two-seam fastballs went down three percent.

This change, however, can help somewhat in explaining the difference in swings and misses. As we noted in the last article last week, Nolasco's two-seamer is not a swing-and-miss pitch, and decreasing its usage versus the use of the slider may lead to more swings and misses.

But why is he using the slider more often? Could part of the reasoning be that Nolasco has just been ahead in the count more often? After all, in April, Nolasco threw 143 pitches while "ahead" in the count, while he threw 184 while the batter was ahead. This month, the ratio has switched entirely, with him throwing 96 pitches while ahead and 63 while behind.

The data, however, does not support this. In April, Nolasco's balls-to-called-strike ratio was at 1.85, but this month it is up to 2.65, meaning that Nolasco is pounding the strike zone less than last season, meaning that it is unlikely that Nolasco is getting more pitcher's counts through better control.

The real difference that we have seen thus far is that hitters are simply missing on his fastball more often. Whereas batters swung and missed on 11 and two percent of four- and two-seam fastballs swung at respectably in April, they are missing on 29 and 24 percent of them this month. The remaining whiff rates of the other pitches are barely any different than they have been for Nolasco's career.

Is this sustainable? It is highly unlikely. Even in Nolasco's most strikeout-laden season, hitters whiffed on about 16 percent of his four-seam fastballs swung at. Nolasco has needed an extreme rate of whiffs on his fastballs to recoup the sort of percentages he once had in 2009 and 2010. That means that once those rates begin to inevitably regress, so too will Nolasco's strikeout rates again, as he has changed very little of his approach thus far in May. It seems that much of his May performance, as stellar as it has been, is an illusion based on the worst pitch in his arsenal. Do not expect that mirage to continue.