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Marlins bank on breakout, ink Nolasco

12/22/2010

The Florida Marlins, widely criticized for failing to spend money, have locked up their second rotation piece to a multi-year contract, agreeing with right-hander Ricky Nolasco on a 3-year/$26.5 million deal. It was just under a year ago that the Marlins committed to Josh Johnson for four years, and now they will have both starters through at least 2013.

Ricky Nolasco

NolascoThe Marlins commitment to Nolasco could signify that the team is expecting the sort of breakout that Nolasco’s peripherals have indicated is coming for years. Few pitchers have been as perplexing as Nolasco; over the last two seasons, Nolasco’s ERA has lagged well behind his supporting statistics. In other words, he has the ERA of a No. 4 starter and the peripherals of a No. 1.

In fact, Nolasco was the only starting pitcher between 2009 and 2010 (combined) to post a strikeout rate per nine innings of 8.5 or greater and an ERA of 4.75 or greater (min. 300 IP).

Ricky Nolasco, Past 2 Seasons
Ranks among NL Starters

If Nolasco is wildly underperforming his peripherals, what could be the cause of it besides potential 'bad luck'? For starters, the Marlins defense has been one of the worst across-the-board over the last two seasons, ranking 15th in the National League in team-wide Defensive Runs Saved (-51) and 16th in Plus/minus (-79), both courtesy of Baseball Info Solutions. The Marlins received below-average defense, according to Defensive Runs Saved, at all four non-catcher infield positions, as well as in center field.

Though some of those fielders will be back in 2011 -- Dan Uggla is gone and the third base situation is up in the air -- Nolasco's combination of plentiful strikeouts and minimal walks seems destined to put him in line for a breakout season at some point in his career. Over the last two seasons, Nolasco ranks fourth among starting pitchers in baseball in strikeout-to-walk ratio, and three of the other four in the top five have won a Cy Young award at some point in their careers.

Best K/BB Ratio, Past 2 Seasons
Starting Pitchers (min. 300 IP)

Put it all together, and the Marlins have assembled a front three portion of their starting rotation -- Johnson, Nolasco and Javier Vazquez -- that is unmatched in its ability to register strikeouts. In fact, among pitchers with at least 300 innings pitched over the past two seasons, the Marlins are the only team in baseball scheduled to go into 2011 with three starters who have averaged 8.5 strikeouts per nine innings or better over that span. Only two other teams even has two such starters -- the Detroit Tigers with Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer and the San Francisco Giants with Tim Lincecum and Jonathan Sanchez.

So while the Marlins might be banking on a breakout from Nolasco to justify the contract, they are putting their money on a pitcher whose underlying statistics justify the faith.