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Wednesday, June 23, 2010
BP: Nolasco has good numbers, bad results

By Eric Seidman, Baseball Prospectus

You know when you recommend a movie to a friend, but your buddy hated the movie? It not only feels like you let your friend down; it feels like his opinion of you has lessened, too.

Well, that's kind of how it was when we, baseball analysts, recommended Ricky Nolasco to fantasy fans. If you're one of the people who listened to our advice on this hurler, I’m sorry. I hope we can still be friends.

Through his first 14 starts this season, Nolasco has made my research look silly. His ERA rests at 4.90, slightly down from last year, but by no means enough to matter. His K/BB ratio is still impressive at 3.53, but the drop is caused by a rather severe downturn in strikeouts. After punching out around 8.5 batters per nine in 2008-09, Nolasco’s rate has dropped to a meager 6.5 per nine.

He is not throwing the ball markedly slower nor allocating his repertoire much differently, and a couple of other numbers used to predict luck in either direction are improved from a year ago. His LOB% -- the rate at which runners that reach base are stranded -- is at a league average 71.3 percent after a no-way-this-doesn’t-regress 61 percent last season. And his batting average on balls in play has dropped from .336 to .321.

Still, in spite of everything, Nolasco is still not having a very good season from a results point of view, and while I usually bet on controllable skills to win out, I am having a very hard time evaluating those characteristics when we now have one-and-a-half seasons suggesting something abnormal is occurring.

What really bugs me, with regards to his numbers not translating into better performance, is the perceived rarity of the situation. Since 1954, there have been 314 pitchers to, in a single season, meet the criteria alluded to above: a 3.5 or better strikeout-unintentional walk ratio, 120 or more frames logged and a K/9 of at least 6.5. If that seems low, keep in mind that a 3.5 K/UBB ratio is really good and not easily achievable for a starting pitcher, especially one who misses an above-average number of bats.

But here are the averages for the group: 3.00 ERA, 4.57 K/UBB, 8.1 K/9. Only 42 of the 314 pitchers saw their ERAs in the particular season match, or rise above, the 4.00 threshold. Nolasco’s 5.06 ERA from 2009 ranks as the fourth highest. Also, if his 4.90 ERA from the current season qualified, it would rank fifth, right behind himself. Here are the 10 highest from 1954-2009:

Of the 42 pitchers with the 4.00+ ERAs, Nolasco has four contemporaries in terms of appearing twice or more: Glendon Rusch (2000, 2001), David Wells (1993, 2000), Javier Vazquez (2000, 2005), and Jon Lieber (1997, 1998, 1999, 2000). Yes, Lieber managed to fit the criteria in four consecutive seasons, though his ERAs were nowhere near as high as Nolasco’s. In fact, none of these pitchers came close to Nolasco.

The pitcher that stands out the most as a comparable is Vazquez. In fact, when asked what I think is going on with Nolasco, it is hard to muster a response different than he is suffering from a case of Javy Vazquez-itis, an illness that affects the event sequencing of a pitcher. While the numbers look great, sans context, the order in which they occur allows for such solid peripherals yet a much higher than expected ERA.

Then again, something else is happening to Nolasco this year: He simply isn’t missing as many bats. He has suffered from elbow injuries in the past but a recurrence of that ailment does not seem to be the case either. There is still plenty of season left, and after a brutal start to last season, he did rebound to produce a 3.82 ERA and 5.0+ K/UBB ratio from June 7 until the end of the season. He could very well be warming up for an encore of that second half performance, or he could just be mired in the midst of a hard to explain slump where expectations just do not match up with the actuality. Hopefully, Nolasco does not turn into a cautionary tale of making loud proclamations and swallowing pride to admit a mistake -- which I’ll gladly do if it ends up that way. But in a further attempt to understand, I have to ask: For those who follow the Marlins closely, is he doing anything noticeably different?

Eric Seidman is a writer for Baseball Prospectus.