Before hosting the Colorado Rockies on Sunday afternoon, the Miami Marlins announced that left-hander Justin Nicolino had been optioned down to their Triple-A affiliate. Paul Clemens pitched in his place, lasting five innings as the Fish fell to Colorado at home, 5-3.
There was a different name on the back of the uniform, but he delivered a familiar result. Before the demotion, Nicolino had been a metronome of mediocrity from that spot in the rotation.
Bill James’ Game Score statistic helps us quantify this. It’s a point system used to rate starting pitching performances that assigns positive values to innings pitched and strikeouts, while penalizing for each run, hit and walk allowed. A score of 50 is considered average, which bring us back to Nicolino.
The 24-year-old made his first major league start of the season on April 27 against the Los Angeles Dodgers, tossing a two-hit gem that earned a Game Score of 74. From there, he finished below 50 in nine consecutive outings.
It isn’t the longest such streak in Marlins history, but it’s close, and these certainly are not the kind of names Nicolino wants to be associated with:
The midsummer struggles that brought Carlos Zambrano into this conversation essentially ended his once-productive career. The Marlins moved Zambrano to a relief role for the final couple months of the 2012 season and he failed to find MLB work after that. Pat Rapp had been a useful rotation member in the mid-1990s, but he was traded the season following his own nine-game streak and did not fully rediscover that form as a journeyman. Mark Hendrickson and Brian Meadows never were much more than replacement-level arms to begin with.
Ricky Nolasco’s nightmare consumed his first 10 starts of 2009, and he’s been a disaster with the Minnesota Twins, but let’s not overlook his in-between phase as a reliable starting pitcher. From 2010-2013, Nolasco issued walks at one of the lowest rates in the National League and averaged nearly 31 starts per season. The substantial gap between his run prevention (4.44 ERA) and fielder independent stats (3.70 FIP, 3.70 xFIP) can be largely attributed to suspect Marlins defense—the team was dead last in MLB during this period with -150 Defensive Runs Saved.
Despite the rough patch that inspired this article, Nicolino has flashed the potential to be the same breed of mid-rotation innings-eater. He owns a 6.2 percent walk rate as a major leaguer, the best of any pitcher to appear for the Marlins in each of the past two seasons. Since making his professional debut in 2011 with 61 dominant innings, his workload has increased every summer—up to 189 innings in 2015—without resulting in any injuries.
It’s also encouraging to see Nicolino be (relatively) competitive every time he takes the mound. His worst showing was a Game Score of 27 on June 15, and he scored above 42 in five of the nine starts. Meanwhile, the five other streaks of similar length all featured at least one gory embarrassment (average of their worst Game Scores: 12).
As Fish Stripes’ Daniel Smith explained earlier in the week, Miami still hasn’t stabilized the back end of its rotation, and lacks obvious internal solutions. That means—barring a trade for established veteran talent—Nicolino might get more major league starts later this season.
Before looking ahead, however, the organization must review this streak of shakiness to determine what possible adjustments Nicolino can make to snap out of it.