The Ricky Nolasco Case: What Went Wrong?

Ricky Nolasco was undeniably solid in 2008. His peripherals were good, his ERA was good, and his advanced stats were good. At the end of the 2008 season, he looked to be somewhat of a budding star. He was just 25 years old, and it appeared he had finally putting it together after spending nearly the entire 2007 season between rookie-ball and triple-A.

There was absolutely no indication that his good year was a fluke, either. His BABIP was slightly below league average, and his LOB% slightly above, but not nearly enough so to completely discount the 3.77 FIP he posted. The impressive numbers, including the low ERA, were well-deserved. Ricky was no doubt feeling pretty good about himself at the end of 2008. 2009, on the other hand, was a bit of a different story… or at least, it appeared to be.

He got off to an extremely rocky start, sporting a 9.07 ERA at the end of May, had some success in the middle months, and ended the season with a 5.06 mark. Understandably so, a lot of fans were probably wondering what went wrong. Well, frankly, nothing did.

Ricky Nolasco was at least as good in 2009 as he was in 2008 – he was simply the victim of awful luck. While it may be arguable as to what exactly pitchers have control over, I don’t think anyone would disagree that they do control strikeouts and walks – so let’s look at those first. In 2008, Ricky Nolasco struck out 186 and walked 42, good for a 4.43 K/BB. In 2009, he struck out 195 and walked 44, good for a 4.43 K/BB. I think it’s safe to say that there wasn’t any sort of drop off there. Fair enough?

Aside from luck (which I’ll get to in a minute), the only real noticeable difference I can find between Nolasco’s 2008 & 2009 season’s, is the success he had with his pitches. Here’s a chart showing each of his pitches, and their respective run values in each of the last two seasons:

Pitch 2008 Run Value 2009 Run Value
Fastball 4.7 -15.5
Slider 4.0 14.3
Curve 11.2 0.5
Change 1.5 -0.4

His fastball and curve got a lot worse, his slider got a lot better, and his change stayed pretty much the same. I looked into this, hoping there was a drop in velocity or something that could explain this in a concrete way, but there really isn’t. Aside from a slight drop in zone% with his pitches as a whole, I can’t find any reason that his fastball and curve would have dropped off like that, so I’m just going to write it off as insignificant.

The most prominent reason for his 2009 struggles is pretty obvious, though; luck. Ricky Nolasco was extremely unlucky in 2009. When a pitcher has a tRA under 4, an FIP under 4, and an ERA over 5, that’s a pretty clear red flag telling you that you shouldn’t be paying attention to his ERA, and in Nolasco’s case, the other numbers really back this up. We already covered his K/BB, and the fact that it didn’t change at all over the last two seasons is a pretty good indicator that he didn’t become less effective. There’s also his .336 BABIP – which was .33 points above league average, and the third highest in baseball. In some cases a BABIP this high can be explained by bad defense, but the Marlins really weren’t that bad defensively in 2009, meaning it was mainly just bad luck. And last but not least, you have his LOB%, which, at 61%, was the lowest in baseball by a wide margin. When someone got on base against Ricky Nolasco, they were going to score ALMOST HALF OF THE TIME. That’s pretty ridiculous, and certainly not sustainable.

So, there you have it. Ricky Nolasco was not a bad pitcher last season – there was no huge drop off, he was simply exposed to the scorn of Lady Luck like no other. He’s still a well above average, young pitcher, and I hope that the Marlins front office realizes that.

Tags: Marlins Ricky Nolasco

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