Why Ricky Nolasco Is a Big 2014 MLB Free Agent Bargain

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Why Ricky Nolasco Is a Big 2014 MLB Free Agent Bargain
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

There are no proven No. 1 starting pitchers on MLB's free-agent market this year. Too many are signing extensions these days. Others, presumably, have simply migrated to warmer climates.

What the market does boast is a solid collection of No. 2 and No. 3 starters who can be had at fair prices. And if there's one guy who's likely to be had at a fairer price than anyone, it's Ricky Nolasco.

Nolasco, who spent 2013 with the Miami Marlins and the Los Angeles Dodgers, is certainly more of a No. 3 than a No. 2. And while he's not old, that he'll turn 31 in December means he's not young either.These are key reasons why Nolasco's not projected to get a huge payday.

 Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com projects a four-year, $50 million deal worth an average of $12.5 million for Nolasco, while Tim Dierkes of MLBTradeRumors.com projects three years and $36 million, an average of $12 million per season.

It's doubtful that Nolasco will end up doing better than the $12-13 million-per-year range, but he is better than that. He is better than that now, and he will very likely be better than that in the future, too.

How do we know Nolasco is better than that now? Well, FanGraphs has a handy-dandy system that converts WAR into free-agent dollars, and what their system says is that Nolasco was worth $15.2 million in 2013. And ever since 2008, he's been worth an average of $14.3 million.

For a guy with a 4.30 ERA over the last six seasons, that might come off as a bit excessive. But there are reasons why Nolasco has been worth that much, starting with his ability to eat innings.

Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Nolasco has pitched 1,151.1 innings over the last six years. Per Baseball-Reference.com, that ranks 24th among all pitchers. He's averaged at least six innings per start each year.

In and of itself, an ability to eat innings like that is a valuable commodity, especially in a day and age when everyone is on a pitch count and bullpens are being tasked with picking up more slack. To this end, Nolasco is a member of the upper echelon.

Beyond that, he's a pretty good pitcher—certainly better than his 4.30 ERA over the last six seasons says he is. In fact, he's basically Hiroki Kuroda.

That's what the numbers say, anyway. Courtesy of FanGraphs, here are said numbers:

Ricky Nolasco vs. Hiroki Kuroda (2008-2013)
Player FIP xFIP SIERA ERA WAR
Kuroda 3.61 3.62 3.74 3.40 19.1
Nolasco 3.62 3.61 3.68 4.30 19.0

FanGraphs

The only difference between Kuroda, who could make as much as $15 or $16 million in 2014 if he decides to come back, and Nolasco over the last six years is that the former has had a much lower ERA. However, categories such as WAR, FIP, xFIP and SIERA all say that's misleading.

If you don't know what those last three are, well, those are ERA estimators. Their function is to take luck and other things beyond a pitcher's control out of the equation and tell you how well he actually pitched.

FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) does it by focusing on strikeouts, walks, hit-by-pitches and home runs. The xFIP (Expected Fielding Independent Pitching) metric is similar, except it replaces a pitcher's home run total with an estimate of how many homers he should have allowed. SIERA (Skill-Interactive ERA) is complicated, but what makes it different is that it analyzes batted balls in more depth.

A major reason why these stats like Nolasco more than his ERA would indicate is because of his command. He's walked only 5.3 percent of the batters he's faced over the last six seasons, which places him fourth among starters with at least 1,000 innings pitched.

Nolasco is a classic case of a guy who doesn't hurt himself with free passes and, at the same time, he is an example of how perilous balls in play can be. That's the larger message sent by FIP, xFIP and SIERA regarding Nolasco's six-year run, and it's something that's been a sort of annual narrative for him.

Behold:

Ricky Nolasco's Consistent Inconsistency
Year FIP xFIP SIERA ERA
2008 3.77 3.69 3.56 3.52
2009 3.35 3.23 3.23 5.06
2010 3.86 3.37 3.37 4.51
2011 3.54 3.55 3.79 4.67
2012 3.87 4.17 4.23 4.48
2013 3.34 3.58 3.72 3.70

FanGraphs

The ERA estimators say that Nolasco got an ERA he deserved in 2008. But from 2009 to 2012, his ERAs were consistently worse than he deserved. The only year there was a close agreement between the estimators and ERA was 2012, when xFIP and SIERA deemed Nolasco worthy of his 4.00-plus ERA.

Playing into that was Nolasco's severe inability to miss bats. He struck out only 15 percent of the batters he faced in 2012. He also got beat up on balls in play once again, but xFIP and SIERA didn't give him a pass this time, largely because there were too many balls in play going on.

And therein lies a big explanation for why Nolasco's luck finally changed for the better in 2013.

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

For the first time since 2008, Nolasco ended up with a sub-4.00 ERA in 2013 that the ERA estimators say he actually deserved. And he deserved it in large part because he started missing bats again.

Like so:

Ricky Nolasco's Hittability
Year SwStr% K%
2012 8.5 15.0
2013 10.5 19.8

FanGraphs

The league average swinging-strike rate for starting pitchers in 2013 was 8.7 percent. The league-average strikeout rate for starters was 18.9 percent. Nolasco was safely above both, and it was no fluke.

If you head over to Brooks Baseball, you can see how Nolasco got more whiffs on pitches outside the strike zone than ever before. Also, you can see that his slider and splitter reached a common new height in the whiffs per swing department.

These two things just so happen to be related.

Because we're still working on getting the green light from Brooks Baseball and Baseball Prospectus, I have to refrain from posting a couple images from Brooks Baseball that I want you to look at. But I can direct you over there to see for yourself, so I'll do that.

If you check out where Nolasco was throwing his slider and splitter from 2007 to 2012, you'll see some warmness inside the strike zone. If you check out what things were like in 2013, however, you'll see less warmness inside the strike zone.

And that's good. Sliders and splitters are pitches largely designed to get hitters to expand the strike zone. It's hard for a pitcher to be successful when he's throwing sliders and splitters in the strike zone consistently. Nolasco stopped doing that in 2013, and it worked.

That Nolasco sought to make an adjustment like that fits with what he's been busy doing over the last few seasons. He's been doing a lot of experimenting recently.

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

One thing FanGraphs' Jeff Sullivan noticed is that Nolasco has changed his positioning on the rubber, a subtle change that seems to have paid off.

A less subtle change is what's happened with Nolasco's repertoire. With more data courtesy of Brooks Baseball, here's how Nolasco has changed over the last few years:

Ricky Nolasco's Repertoire
Pitch 2007-2010 Usage 2011-2013 Usage
Four-Seam 44.72 27.26
Sinker 6.37 19.53
Slider 21.78 25.38
Curve 5.48 0.37
Splitter 7.75 12.10
Slow Curve 13.90 15.35

Brooks Baseball

Nolasco used to be a fastball-slider guy who occasionally mixed in a slow curveball. He's now a five-pitch pitcher, as he's developed a sinker to go along with his four-seamer and has put more trust in his splitter. 

Nolasco's sinker has been a key pitch in his transition. He used to be an extreme fly-ball pitcher,but over the last three seasons, his ground-ball rate has been at least 43 percent each year. That's his sinker at work, as it's induced more ground balls than any of his pitches since 2011.

The diversity of Nolasco's repertoire is an advantage that he has over other free-agent starters in line for multi-year deals. Ervin Santana is a fastball-slider guy. Matt Garza is a also fastball-slider guy. Ubaldo Jimenez dabbles in many different pitches, but he's basically a fastball-slider guy as well.

What one worries about with these guys is what will become of them if age starts to bring their fastball velocity closer to or even below league average. They'll suddenly find it harder to overpower hitters, and that's when they'll be needing more go-to pitches.

This concern doesn't apply to Nolasco. FanGraphs has his average velocity over the last three seasons at just above 90 miles per hour, which is already below the league average for starters. It doesn't strike me as a coincidence that we're talking about the same three-year period in which he's been active adjusting his pitching style.

He's become what we call "crafty." And the best thing about "crafty," friends, is that it doesn't age.

Thus concludes this treatise on Ricky Nolasco. Whoever signs him will be getting a pitcher who can eat innings, is undervalued thanks to his fluky showings in the ERA department, and whose renovated pitching style makes him a candidate to age well.

A general manager who's looking for a top-of-the-rotation guy shouldn't get the wrong idea. A general manager who wants to get some good bang for his buck, however, should put in a call to Nolasco's people.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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