Acquired at the trade deadline, SoCal native Ricky Nolasco was thankful to become an Angel. But Angels fans weren’t all that excited, and rightfully so. Nolasco was a throw-in piece in the deal that shipped off Hector Santiago and netted the team Alex Meyer, and his past two years with the Twins weren’t all that inspiring, as he pitched to the tune of 5.38 and 6.75 ERA in just under 200 innings pitched. This highlighted not only an ineffective pitcher, but also the injury risk that a veteran pitcher represents.
But there were several factors which indicated he would be better as an Angel, the most notable of which were moving from a hitter’s to a pitcher’s park and going from awful fielding to above-average fielding. He pitches a lot of innings every year: from 2008-2013 he averaged approximately 192 IP per year. There’s always the trite “change of scenery” reason given, but it’s pretty valid in this scenario. What player would want to be on this year’s 103 loss Twins team??
Overall, Nolasco performed well as an Angel, posting a 3.21 ERA and a 3.87 FIP in 73 innings. He started off as the ho-hum innings-eater we expected him to be but impressed in his final six outings. It’s a stat line that includes a four-hit shutout and four starts of 7+ innings pitched. He has attributed much of these successes to Charles Nagy, who suggested he use his sinker more often during starts. Can he replicate his late season success? Let’s analyze his time with the Angels.
Keep in mind that his increased implementation of the sinker came about halfway through his tenure with the Angels, so the statistics are averaged out with his largely average August. All the data I reference can be found here (click on ‘partial season’ under a category to see his 2016 Angels statistics).
The advanced statistics
Nolasco has been allowing less runners on base (1.07 WHIP), giving up less home runs per fastball (9.8% HR/FB), leaves more runners on base thanks to his newfound penchance for ground balls (77% LOB, 44.5% GB), and has better control than he has had in a while (3.40 K/BB).
All of this points to initiating ground balls through his sinker, which is probably why he has stranded so many runners effectively. Through this he also conserves pitches, allowing him to pitch deeper into games and be the effective starter we need him to be.
The common theme here is that Nolasco is inducing more ground balls (44.5% ground ball rate) and letting his defense - namely Andrelton Simmons - do the work for him. Batters have hit less line drives against him than ever before (18.2% line drive rate), indicating that he is better using his mix of pitches to be more effective.
While his medium contact increased, his soft contact and hard contact decreased - which once again points to the idea of easy outs through ground balls and fly balls. The decrease in soft contact points to a less useful breaking ball, which is very possible given the wear and tear on his arm.
Win probability and value
Nolasco’s WPA (win probability added) was 0.63, which means he was 0.63 runs better than the average pitcher. He showed a positive clutch value (0.26), indicating he pitched better in high-leverage situations. He also posted a positive run expectancy (RE24=7.79) and a positive win expectancy (0.85).
In his two months with the Halos, Nolasco compiled 1 fWAR - but this was with both August and September. If we see more September Nolasco than August, then we could be looking at a 4 fWAR pitcher with the potential to be our #2 starter. And with Nagy guiding him, who knows what he will be able to do.
My takeaways from Pitchf/x data
The main change here is the pitch type. Throwing eleven percent more two-seam fastballs (with a sinker grip) and throwing eleven percent less four-seamers, Nolasco has found a pattern to get quick outs and induce easy ground balls. The sinker has now become a major plus-pitch, while his fastball and splitter benefitted as a result. The slider, on the other hand, has decreased but it could be related to a slight decrease in velocity.
I know many are going to say that the Angels have better fielders and Nolasco is benefitting as a result. However, this notion happens to be incorrect this season. The Twins played better defense for Nolasco than the Angels! I know, I was surprised by this too...The Angels had a .909 fielding percentage, which wasn’t too helpful. For reference, our fielder extraordinaire Yunel Escobar has a .937 fielding percentage. The Angels did have a +1 defensive run saved for Nolasco, but I still think the Angels’ fielding was a net negative overall.
In the end, fielding did not have a major effect on Nolasco’s statistics this season.
Nolasco’s performance is sustainable, and I would not at all be surprised to see a 4 fWAR season from him. His heightened use of the sinker not only induced easy ground balls, but also improved his four-seam fastball and splitter. Once he did this, he started providing quantity and quality innings for the Angels by utilizing his defense. With one of the lowest walk rates of his career, Nolasco has commanded the strike zone well as an Angel and there’s no telling what he’ll be able to do with Nagy by his side.