Justin Nicolino takes the mound tonight again for another shot at an NL West team after dominating the Los Angeles Dodgers en route to a shutout performance in his first 2016 start for the Miami Marlins. In that start, Nicolino gave up two hits and two walks and also had two strikeouts, but still shut out the Dodgers. This was not a far cry from the starts he put up in 2015, as he averaged about 2.5 strikeouts and walks per nine innings last season.
We have discussed before why Justin Nicolino needs strikeouts. Pitchers with low strikeout rates have a harder time being successful, and pitchers at this level of a strikeout rate are rarely long-term options in a rotation. The comparisons we have discussed in the past have been difficult ones to see, and almost every pitcher who has subsequently lasted in the league has had to up his strikeout rate a little more than Nicolino's 12.7 percent rate from his time in Double- and Triple-A. That does not even consider his 7.7 percent rate in 13 big-league starts.
If you strip the ugly strikeout rate away, however, you can at least look at the kind of contact rates that players are putting up against Nicolino. Over his big-league career thus far, batters have made contact on 89.5 percent of swings against Nicolino. Making that much contact leaves a pitcher to the whims of their defense, and some pitchers have to do other things well to deal with these limitations. I looked at the top 10 highest contact rates in from 2013 to 2016 and looked at how those pitchers performed. Keep in mind, these are pitchers with high contact rates who survived three years in the big leagues; inherently, this data has survivor bias that makes them look better than the average guy who does this.
The next ten pitchers down also have questionable results overall. As a group, this set of ten pitchers, already established as ten guys who could survive being a big-league starter for three years and at least 320 innings, put up a 4.17 ERA and 4.12 FIP. At least four of these pitchers were trainwrecks during the regular season, while at least four of them could be labeled successes. Buehrle is immortal and has other reasons for his overwhelming success. Colon is seemingly immortal (and hilarious fun) as well. Leake and Hughes signed long-term extensions with their teams, signaling that clubs are valuing them highly.
The two pitchers who best fit the strikeout and walk profiles that we discussed for Nicolino in the previous outing are Buehrle and Henderson Alvarez. As mentioned, Buehrle benefits from an elite defensive skill and all-time baserunning suppression, both of which would be difficult to repeat. Alvarez also was a good defender in his full season, and he has the same story of Nicolino in that he too spent a season not striking anyone out, except that Alvarez suffered what one might expect based on that problem. Still, Alvarez also has an above-average ground ball rate that Nicolino did not display at least last season. He did at least pick up plenty of grounders in his last start.
It may be a better idea to point out who did well in more traditional categories and see if there is a way to repeat that success. Colon, Hughes, Leake, and Jon Niese each posted strikeout rates above 16 percent. Hughes and Colon both walked batters at under a four percent rate. Nicolino was well known for his control in the minors, having posted a 4.5 percent walk rate in his Double- and Triple-A seasons. How did Colon and Hughes, arguably two of the most successful of these high-contact types, do it? You can see that both pounded the strike zone a lot. As a result, they walked fewer guys than the other pitchers, but they also induced more swings than the others.
That got mixed results overall. While Hughes had one amazing season in the last three years, he also had two bad seasons filled with home runs. This, however, is because he had huge fly ball rates that have persisted through his career; he owns a career 44 percent fly ball rate. Colon owns just a 38 percent rate and has done better on avoiding home runs. The guy who hit the strike zone the third most times in this ten-pitcher sample, Alvarez, had a career 55 percent grounder rate.
Another potential avenue to success, then, is to hit the strike zone as often as possible to completely avoid walks and try to aim low in the zone to get more grounders. That may already be Nicolino's approach, but as we can see in Colon's example, he may have to go more extreme than his current 52 percent zone rate in order to up his strikeouts if he is still going to fail to miss bats.