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Did Marlins give up on Justin Nicolino too soon?

Nicolino’s results were inconsistent, but the quality of his pitches suggests there is still untapped potential.

Nicolino didn’t show enough in spring training to convince Don Mattingly that he deserved another shot in the rotation.
Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Filling out an MLB roster requires collaboration from both the coaching staff and front office. However, Marlins manager Don Mattingly has one of the loudest voices in the room, and throughout spring training, he never shied away from expressing his displeasure with left-hander Justin Nicolino.

At the beginning of organized team activities, Mattingly offered this blunt assessment of the 26-year-old, according to the Miami Herald’s Barry Jackson:

“Nico’s a guy, we’ll see what he looks like. We kind of already know.”

Fast-forward to March 7, he commented on the adjustments that Nicolino had made to his pitch selection (via the Sun Sentinel).

“We’ve never been a fan of the cutter,” Mattingly said. “Cutter seemed like when he maybe sticks with that, he got hit hard. You can’t force a guy to do anything, but we’ve been talking about trying to get rid of that cutter for two years now.”

Nicolino devoted an entire offseason to experimentation. There was a sense of urgency because he entered 2018 without any remaining minor league options. In a crowded Marlins rotation competition, he made five Grapefruit League appearances (10.1 IP, 5.23 ERA, 8/7 K/BB, 1.84 WHIP).

Those performances weren’t convincing enough—before even announcing its season-opening rotation, the club severed ties with Nicolino. The Cincinnati Reds claimed him off waivers on Sunday afternoon.

During parts of three Marlins seasons (201 13 total innings), Nicolino’s results had been mediocre. Peripheral stats (4.84 FIP, 5.12 xFIP) indicate that his 4.65 earned run average might actually be skewed by some good fortune. No pitcher in the entire major leagues has accumulated swings and misses at a lower rate or struggled more to put away batters via strikeout (min. 100 IP).

One of the final photos taken of Nicolino pitching a regular season game for the Marlins.
Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images

But Fish Stripes recently spoke with somebody who would happily buy up all the Justin Nicolino stock right now: Wayne Grenier, president of Grenier Agencies Inc.

Three years ago, Greiner’s son, Jarvis, and Dr. Jason Wilson introduced Quality of Pitch at the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR) Analytics Conference in Phoenix. The following year, they met directly with MLB teams to seek cross-validation, as Wilson explained at The Hardball Times. Since then, Greiner has made Quality of Pitch (QOP) data available for public queries. And because it uses the PITCHf/x database, we can analyze millions of major league pitches thrown by thousands of different players since the 2008 season.

When evaluating a pitch, QOP factors in its velocity, location, total break (horizontal and vertical), breaking point (how late a pitch moves) and rise (maximum height). Once plugged into a proprietary formula, these variables generate a pitch value between zero and 10 (between four and six in the vast majority of cases). The MLB average is approximately 4.50.

There’s a statistically significant relationship between earned run average and the average Quality of Pitch (QOPA).

“What we see is that pitchers with an ERA above five and a Quality of Pitch above five, 85 percent of those pitchers will improve their ERA the following season,” Grenier says.

Guess who fit snugly into that group in 2017? Nicolino (5.06 ERA, 5.20 QOPA).

The year before that, Marlins fans will remember the disappointing stretch Andrew Cashner had after arriving at the trade deadline. Overall, he posted a 5.25 ERA and 5.07 QOPA in 2016. But a similar Quality of Pitch last summer (5.18 QOPA) produced a much-improved 3.40 ERA, which he parlayed into a multi-year contract with the Orioles.

Source: The Hardball Times

Grenier cites Jordan Montgomery of the Yankees as a comp for Nicolino. Both tall lefties compensate for a lack of velocity with movement and location.

An important distinction, of course, is that Montgomery’s 5.30 QOPA has already translated into effectiveness (3.88 ERA, 4.07 FIP). There are variables beyond Quality of Pitch—player height, stride length, release point, pitch selection, etc.—that determine whether pitchers can succeed.

Despite QOP similarities, Nicolino and Montgomery differ in other meaningful ways.
Photos by Mark Brown and Rick Yeatts/Getty

Although Don Mattingly arrived at his conclusion from a much different perspective, this data agrees with him about the cutter. It had been Nicolino’s most ordinary pitch as a big leaguer, according to QOPA.

Dating back to his seasons as a standout prospect, Nicolino always excelled at painting the corners of the strike zone. That continued to be a strength with the Marlins—he ranked in the 97th percentile league-wide in Quality of Pitch’s location component last year.

However, he wasn’t nearly as precise with the cutter (74th percentile in location) as with his other offerings (all 82nd percentile or better).

Justin Nicolino Quality of Pitch, 2015-2017

Year QOPA (all pitches) QOPA (cutter)
Year QOPA (all pitches) QOPA (cutter)
2015 5.10 4.59
2016 5.24 4.79
2017 5.20 4.63
Source: qopbaseball

To achieve the results he’s looking for with the Reds (or whoever gives him a real opportunity), it would actually behoove Nicolino to throw lower quality of pitches in certain situations.

This mistake from March 18 is indicative of why he has been so hittable. Ahead in the count and with runners in scoring position, he wants Brandon Drury to chase out of the zone for weak contact or a swinging strike. And that’s where the catcher sets up (off the inside corner).

Unfortunately, Nicolino gets way too much of the plate:

Courtesy of YES Network

Perhaps he doesn’t trust his usual stuff to entice batters to chase?

That’s where the new slider comes in: something with late break. Feedback from QOP will need to wait until the regular season begins, but in the meantime, we got to see his new toy in action during that same spring training game against the Yankees.

Courtesy of YES Network
Courtesy of YES Network

Nicolino peaked as the No. 4 prospect in the Marlins farm system, per MLB Pipeline. It always tastes bitter to lose someone of that pedigree for nothing.

Watching from afar as he realizes his potential and consistently contributes for another team would be even more painful. That still seems unlikely, but at least Quality of Pitch helps dispel the misconception about Nicolino being a hopeless soft-tosser. The tools are there for him to change the narrative.