Ricky Nolasco’s Career Year

The Dodgers have one of the top starting rotations in the game as they head into the playoffs, and it’s not hard to see why. Clayton Kershaw might be the best pitcher on the planet, while Zack Greinke has been just about as good as Kershaw over the last two months. Behind that pair, Hyun-jin Ryu has been fantastic in his debut season, and might have been the slam-dunk Rookie of the Year in a campaign that didn’t feature Jose FernandezYasiel Puig, Shelby Miller, and so many others.

With that trio leading the way, it’s easy to forget the 30-year-old veteran who only joined the team in July after having been rescued from Miami, and whose main claim to fame during parts of eight seasons in the big leagues is that he constantly (and infuriatingly) under-performed his peripherals. But since arriving in Los Angeles, Ricky Nolasco has been every bit as effective as his more famous teammates, with a 2.07 ERA and 3.06 FIP in 12 starts. Luck? Increased happiness at being away from the Marlins, back in a pennant race, and pitching for his childhood team? Or has something actually changed other than his zip code?

It’s interesting to investigate, because while the ERA and 8-1 record as a Dodger after going 5-8 with the Marlins is what’s getting him attention, this is not something that suddenly happened the day he was traded. Nolasco’s K% and BB% with the Dodgers really aren’t all that different than they were in the first half of the year with the Marlins, and the main difference between his 2.07 ERA with Los Angeles and the 3.85 mark he had with the Marlins is that he’s limited homers (0.61/9, down from 0.88) and been the beneficiary of a nice BABIP (.255, down from .299).

That’s not to suggest that he’s merely been lucky, because you might be surprised if you looked at our handy “Last Calendar Year” split to see where he’s ranked among other starters. By WAR, he’s 30th. By ERA, also 30th. By FIP, 21st. By xFIP, again, 30th. Over the last year, Nolasco has been one of the top 30 pitchers in baseball, and that dates back to before his time with the Dodgers. He’s simply been a very good pitcher for at least a year now.

You can find all sorts of theories why. Jeff Sullivan pointed out that his release point had changed slightly. Eno Sarris thought that Nolasco had changed his fastball approach somewhat. Those are probably both accurate, but I think we can also see that his slider usage is trending upwards:

nolasco_pitches_2013That’s coming mostly at the expense of his sinker, which is a wonderful pitch to generate grounders with, but not one that tends to miss as many bats as the slider would, as Nolasco himself noted back in May while also pointing out that he was aware he hadn’t been striking out as many as he had been in previous years:

“It reminded me of that feeling of punching guys out,” Nolasco said, of Wednesday’s Petco Park outing. “I’ve thrown well a lot of other times not punching guys out, but it’s a different feeling when you’re striking guys out and you know you can. Once I felt that feeling it makes me want to be able to do more often.”

“You have to go out there and get people out and be efficient,” Nolasco said. “That’s the most important part. I felt the late life on the slider and that’s where I get a lot of my strikeouts. To be able to get that feeling where you’re really finishing and getting that extra bite is when the strikeouts come.”

On the season, Nolasco’s swinging-strike percentage is a career-high 10.7%, and it’s even better at 11.6% if you’re just considering his time with the Dodgers. That’s not just because he’s using the slider more, but because it’s been better, back to 2009-10 levels of missing bats after a dip in 2011-12.

So it seems here that Nolasco’s year is something close to being “for real,” and while the move to Los Angeles has certainly helped, it’s not the only reason, because he was already doing better in the relative obscurity of Miami prior to the trade. Whether you put it on pitch selection, release point, good luck (you can’t completely ignore that BABIP) or some combination of all of it, Nolasco is on more than a simple hot streak. He’s helped more than a few fantasy teams run to the title if you happened to have picked him up over the summer — cheaply, most likely — and it couldn’t be better timing for him; as a free agent, he’s almost certain to get an excessively large contract that we’ll all be killing this winter.

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Mike Petriello used to write here, and now he does not. Find him at @mike_petriello or MLB.com.

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Really interesting. Good work.