The Miami Marlins are still searching for starting pitching, but one guy in whom they have not lost confidence is Justin Nicolino. In Miami Herald's Barry Jackson's latest piece, he reports that president of baseball operations Michael Hill is now more confident in Nicolino now that the team has instructed him to stop using a cutter.
Though the Marlins are searching the trade market for starting pitching, they believe Justin Nicolino(who has had two solid starts in Triple A, allowing two runs in a combined 13 1/3 innings) will be better when he returns because Marlins president/baseball operations Michael Hill said they've convinced him to stop throwing his cutter...
This is interesting because there was no indication that he had changed his repertoire. At the same time, Nicolino has said before that he needs to do something to increase his strikeout rate that has been an ongoing issue. It is certainly possible he turned to a cutter as a potentially useful tool to add to his game.
Has he been throwing a cutter? Brooks Baseball does its own pitch categorization based on raw MLB Gameday data, and it does seem to think that is the case.
Trajectory and Movement - from 01/01/2016 to 01/01/2017
Pitch Type Count Freq Velo (mph) pfx HMov (in.) pfx VMov (in.) H. Rel (ft.) V. Rel (ft.) Fourseam 69 8.16% 90.18 7.42 9.35 2.00 6.53 Sinker 367 43.38% 89.52 9.95 7.29 2.06 6.47 Change 158 18.68% 83.40 9.37 4.78 2.13 6.54 Curve 102 12.06% 77.30 -1.72 -2.48 2.11 6.58 Cutter 150 17.73% 87.20 3.25 4.93 2.23 6.38
At first blush, it looks almost as though Nicolino replaced his slider primarily with a cutter-like offering. In terms of its break, it does look different than his four-seamer and two-seamer, particularly when compared to his pitches from last season. Here are the generalized pitch groupings from last year:
Compare that to this year's breakdowns:
You can see that the cutter and slider have similar break, but it seems as though he has completely scrapped the slider from last year and focused more on this new cutter. We recommended focusing more on just one breaking pitch, and he chose the curveball over the slider, as we recommended when he was promoted.
Nicolino last season primarily used a slider and change-up as his other pitches to complement his fastball. Perhaps a better move would be to develop his curveball, which was his fourth pitch and more rarely used. It sounds like Nicolino has thought of the curve as well, based on his interview with FanGraphs' David Laurilla before 2014.
Just a few months into the cutter's birth, however, and the Marlins want Nicolino scrapping the pitch. Has it been that bad?
It is easy on first glance to look at those two pitches in comparison and say that the slider was a better offering and that Nicolino should scrap the cutter in its favor. After all, the cutter was bad, and it appears to be a legitimate pitching change in terms of an 87 mph pitch with different break than his fastballs. One would think, however, that the cutter could potentially be used against both sides of the plate and not primarily just to left-handers. Sliders have very large platoon splits, and Nicolino was aware and used the slider in only 15 percent of chances against right-handed hitters versus 30 percent of the time against lefties.
This would hold water, except that he has essentially treated the cutter in the same fashion. He has thrown it in 27 percent of chances versus lefties but just 15 percent of the time versus right-handers, a nearly identical ratio as the one he had for the slider last year. He has no strong confidence in this cutter offering. Because the pitch breaks in a slightly different fashion than the slider, he has not had good confidence using it to miss bats either, particularly against the right side. When he gets ahead against right-handers, there is almost no difference in his usage of the cutter than when he is at a neutral count. The slider at least offered some break that gave him confidence to use it as an out pitch.
Given the way that Nicolino seems to be using the cutter, there are only two ways to approach this. The Marlins chose to scrap the pitch for the time being, and that may ultimately be for the best. Maybe the team just does not have a Don Cooper-type coach who can teach up a cutter and help a young starter develop that pitch. It may just be a lost cause based on its initial use.
At the same time, the other option is to keep working on something, even if it is not the cutter, to develop a new part of Nicolino's arsenal. This addition did not solve the strikeout issue, which is the primary problem in his game. However, taking it away is not going to solve the problem either, and the Marlins cannot truly believe that Nicolino will go back to being a mediocre pitcher (not even an above average one) like last year based on holding batters to a .259 BABIP with no strikeouts. Something has be tweaked or changed for Nicolino to prove a contributor for the Marlins. It may not be a cutter, but further developing that curveball may be the right step if he cannot expand his repertoire to even more pitches to give him more weapons.