Ricky Nolasco’s ’09, Bad Luck or Bad Form?

By Tyler McKee

Going into last season, Ricky Nolasco‘s solid rookie campaign pointed to a budding star poised to make a large fantasy impact. He finished the year with a solid 13-9 record for a decent Florida Marlins club, but also put up a disappointing 5.06 ERA — a full run and a half higher than his previous season.

Some might see Nolasco’s extremely large jump in BABIP from .284 in 2008 to .336 in 2009 and his impressive FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching – a measure that runs on a similar scale to ERA but strips out factors such as defense, run and bullpen support) of 3.35 for the year as signs of a particularly unlucky season and thus expect regression to the mean this year. But there’s more to it than that. The key is to look at the splits.

The disparity between his April/May and June/July splits is quite astonishing. Nolasco posted a huge 6.49 FIP in May coupled with an absurd BABIP of .418 and a left-on-base percentage of 37.6%. This means that 62.4% of batters that reached base against Nolasco ended up scoring! Compare this with one month later, when all of those stats fell faster than stock in Toyota. In June and July, Nolasco saw his BABIP fall to around .300 and his LOB% rise to a solid 75%. His FIP fell below 3.00. So what happened? We know that he was not injured, so the answer must have involved his mechanics. 

Whatever it was did not seem to affect Nolasco’s ability to hit the strike zone. Bloomberg Sports’ performance grid shows that his walks per nine innings (BB/9) stayed right around his career average. Instead, it appears the culprit was an inability to keep the ball down in the zone, as evidenced by his flyball percentage (FB%), which jumped to 50%, from his usual average of about 41%. Needless to say, this is a big problem for a major league pitcher, especially one that depends on a dominant slider as one of his go to pitches.

If a slider is thrown properly it should have significant lateral movement as well as diving action, causing hitters to swing over top of the ball and drive it into the ground, or miss it completely. However, delivery issues could significantly hinder a pitcher’s ability to achieve this breaking action. When thrown poorly a slider will stay flat and be easily distinguished by the hitter, (as explained in detail here) which is what appears to have happened to Nolasco. 

The increased FB% and a drop of two strikeouts per nine innings, to 7 from 9, indicates that batters were able to square up his pitches far more often then normal. Instead of hitters rolling over his breaking stuff and driving it into the ground, they were able to make more solid contact — and Nolasco struggled as a result. The Bloomberg Sports hits per nine innings chart (H/9) shows just how bad it got for him. At one point he was giving up five more hits than the league average. The H/9 chart also shows a strong correlation with the BABIP chart. This is a clear indication that what many thought was a run of bad luck, was also the result of bad pitching. 

On May 22, Nolasco was sent down to Triple-A to work out his issues, and whatever adjustments were made worked out well. After he returned on June 7, Nolasco saw a return to his old results. His flyball rates fell in both June and July, bottoming out at 24.1%, his groundball rate skyrocketed to 54.2%, and his K/9 returned to its normal rate of better than 9.0. During this time Nolasco achieved a miniscule 2.34 FIP.

In 2010 it won’t be better luck, or better fielding that enables Ricky Nolasco to return to the mean, and the hearts of fantasy managers. Look to see if he can become more consistent in his delivery. If he can do this, he will make a very solid number two starting pitcher for any fantasy team. 

For more on Ricky Nolasco and other starting pitchers, check out Bloomberg Sports’ fantasy kits.

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