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Spring Training Report: A Closer Look at Justin Nicolino

Justin Nicolino is building a strong case for Miami’s fifth rotational starting slot.

Miami Marlins v Atlanta Braves Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

As Don Mattingly has named four of the five starters in the Marlins rotation, the smart money on the fifth spot has been on Adam Conley or Jose Urena. Given his rough 2016 and his unimpressive start to spring training, Justin Nicolino was the dark horse candidate. However, given the success he has enjoyed over his past three outings, Nicolino is charging to the post in a late flurry.

The stat line from these three outings, two of which were starts, is impressive: 12 IP, eight hits, one earned run, two walks and five strikeouts. This has lowered his 2017 spring ERA from a robust 12.46 down to a respectable 3.86. Nicolino has stated that he has gone through some mechanical adjustments during spring; and has worked on his cut fastball.

More reasons for his improved performance were evident during his start on Saturday against the Cardinals. He tossed five innings, giving up only one hit and one walk while striking out three. His efficiency and aggressiveness were praise-worthy. His quick pace and confidence on the mound were reassuring to watch while his control was excellent and he really pounded righties inside; one time forcing Jhonny Peralta out of the game after he fouled an inside heater off his knee. His cutter also showed good movement, and he flashed his change-up which showed good dip early but flattened out later in the game.

While watching today’s outing, a comparison to Nicolino (though perhaps an optimistic one) came to mind. His straight over-the-top delivery of a low 90s fastball and his reliance on location and late movement beckons comparisons to Blue Jays’ lefty J.A. Happ. Both he and Nicolino have average velocity and low strike-out rates. Here’s a clip of Happ from last season for a visual comparison:

Happ has refined his skills over time and had a breakout 2016 season where he went 20-4 with a 3.14 ERA and a 1.17 WHIP. He showed precise control and has an advanced approach with both his two-seam and four-seam fast balls; hitting spots and changing pitch patterns.

To bring us back down to earth, Nicolino did not fare nearly as well last year with an ERA just south of five, and a WHIP of 1.46. The big culprit of his high WHIP was an eye-popping 96 hits in 79 1/3 innings. However, by developing his cutter and working on fastball location and movement, he could certainly improve upon last season’s outcome. Here’s Nicolino in one of his better performances from last season:

In the meantime, though he may never reach the level of Happ’s excellent 2016 campaign, perhaps Nicolino’s continued success in these last weeks of spring training will be enough to snatch the fifth spot in the rotation or perhaps a role as a long reliever.

While there’s still time for a few more outings for all three of the top pitching contenders for this roster spot, at 26 years old, Nicolino is looking to grab his spot right now.