Where Did Nolasco’s Strikeouts Go?

Marlins’ starter Ricky Nolasco was a trendy sleeper pick among the stathead crowd coming into the season … well, sleeper makes him sounds like a big secret. I suppose he was already a well known guy, but not everyone looked past the 5.06 ERA and saw the gaudy peripheral stats that suggested damn near ace-level production. Semantics.

Anyway, Nolasco is producing almost exactly as we expected him to this season. His walks are super low (1.82 BB/9), he’s generating close to 40% ground balls (39.2%, to be exact), just about 11% of his fly balls are leaving the yard, and his strand rate is right around the league average following last season’s unfathomably low 61.0% LOB%. All that is nice, but there’s one big red flag here: he’s not striking out nearly as many batters.

After a studly 9.49 K/9 last year (7.88 in 2008), Nolasco is down basically three full strikeouts to 6.54 K/9 this year. Let’s cut right to the chase and dig into the Plate Discipline stats (click for larger)…

You can see that Nolasco isn’t generating as many swings and misses this season, which is to be expected with such a dramatic drop in strikeout rate. His O-Contact% has taken an extreme jump up to 70.1% this year, so pitches that were being swung through last year are being put in play or fouled off this year. Make sure to note that the league as a whole is not only swinging at more pitches out of the zone this year, but also making more contact with them as well. Nolasco’s jump in O-Contact% is still extreme even considering the league-wide change.

Pitch Type Values tell us that Nolasco’s fastball has been a bit more effective this year while his slider has been slightly more ineffective, though his split-finger fastball has gone from 1.95 runs above average last year (per 100 thrown) to 1.05 runs below average this year. A drop of three runs per 100 pitches is significant, and indicates that the pitch might be the root of Nolasco’s strikeout problems.

The righty’s fastball velocity is down exactly one mile an hour to 90.5 while the splitter is down close to three miles an hour to 84.9, so perhaps there’s too much separation between the pitches. The reduced velocity has altered the movement of the pitch, certainly not unexpected. It’s lost close to five inches of horizontal movement and close to an inch and a half of vertical falling off the tableness (looking at some other splitters from around the league, it doesn’t appear to be a calibration issue, though that always remains a possibility). Nolasco’s splitter still features some fade and sink, but not nearly as much as it did a year ago.

Unsurprisingly, he throws the pitch primarily in two strike counts, so it’s possible the slower, straighter version of his splitter isn’t getting it done. I don’t have to tell you that correlation =/= causation, so this is far from proof. Just a theory. Whatever’s going on, Nolasco’s strikeout rate has dropped by a third, and his overall performance has suffered as a result.

(R) ZiPS calls for a 131 IP of 4.26 ERA (3.69 FIP) and 7.97 K/9 ball the rest of the way, so it sees an improvement coming. He still has trade value based on reputation alone, but for now it might be best to sit him against teams that do an especially good job of getting the bat on the ball. I don’t recommend dropping him outright unless you’re in an especially shallow league.

Mike writes about the Yankees at River Ave. Blues and baseball in general at CBS Sports.

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