Saturday, April 9, 2016

One Game of Juan Nicasio

I'm writing this while watching Gerrit Cole struggle against the Cincinnati Reds. Gerrit Cole struggling against the Reds isn't worrisome, for two reasons. First, he's always struggled against the Reds. The Pirates are 0-6 entering today in Cole starts against Cincinnati, and he's pitched well in only one game against them: September 28, 2014, seven innings, one run on four hits and no walks and twelve strikeouts. In the other five starts, he's allowed at least three runs in each, and his ERA is 6.31. Second, it's just one game. 

In the same vein, I don't think it makes sense to read much into Juan Nicasio's start on Wednesday against St. Louis. On one hand, it was brilliant: six innings, two hits, no walks, seven strikeouts in a 5-1 Pirates victory. On the other hand, it's just one game.

That caveat in mind, it was a promising start to Nicasio's Pirates career. He was a starter for Rockies in 2011-2013 but was shifted to the bullpen in 2014. In his four years in Denver, he compiled a 5.03 ERA in 69 starts and 19 relief appearances. He was a below-average strikeout pitcher (17.6% strikeout rate; the league average was nearly 20%) with an average walk rate (8.0%). He was traded to the Dodgers after the 2014 season, where he worked almost exclusively as a reliever. In one start and 52 relief appearances last year, he amped up his strikeout rate (25.0%) and, unfortunately, his walk rate (12.3%) as well, finishing with a 3.86 ERA and 1.560 WHIP and being left off the team's postseason roster.

He was a Pirates bargain-bin signing over the winter, as the team gave the 29-year-old a one-year, $3 million contract. The hope was, as with every struggling hurler who comes to Pittsburgh, that pitching coach Ray Searage would transform him into something better. 

The jury's out on his performance in his first regular season game. At Baseball Prospectus, Matt Trueblood wrote that his fastball, while effective, ran out of gas in the fourth inning, and his other pitchers weren't overpowering. At FanGraphs, Craig Edwards noted that he's dependent on just two pitches, a four-seam fastball and a slider, and it's very hard for a starting pitcher to succeed with just two pitches.

As I discussed in my Baseball Prospectus article on the Pirates, the team has excelled at getting pitchers to target the lower portions of the strike zone, generating ground balls that are hit to shifted infielders in order to generate outs. Where does Nicasio stand on that score?

Well, in terms of what he's throwing, things haven't changed a lot. His last year in Colorado, Nicasio threw 67% four-seam (rising*) fastballs, 26% sliders, 4% changeups, and 3% two-seam (sinking) fastballs. In Los Angeles, his mix was 74% four-seamers, 24% sliders, and 1%** changeups. In his start Wednesday, it was 59% four-seamers, 35% sliders, and 6% changeups. Edwards is right: He's still a fastball/slider pitcher. Maybe he'll throw the changeup more, but that 6% figure represents just five pitches, which clearly isn't a lot. And, unlike his staffmate, Francisco Liriano, there's no evidence that Nicasio is giving up his four-seamer for a fastball that sinks.

As for results, well, that's a somewhat better story. Here's zone map (shows the location of his pitches) of Nicasio's 2015 pitches:

His favorite location--the red square--was low and away to right-handed batters. In total, the ten lowest boxes, representing the lowest 40% of the plate area, accounted for 43% of Nicasio's pitches last year. 

Here's his 2016 zone map--again, based on just 84 pitches in one start:

Again, his favorite location is low and away to righties. But now the lower 40% comprised 52% of his pitches. One start is way too early to make a call, but it appears that Nicasio may be targeting lower.

So has that resulted in more grounders? Well, not so far. Last year, he got grounders on 43% of batted balls against him. That compares to 46% in 2014 and 45% in 2013. In his start last week, he allowed four grounders, seven fly balls, and two line drives, a 31% ground ball rate. So while he's pitched down more, hitters hit balls in the air more as well.

One of those trends will probably change. Either his pitches will move up or he'll get more grounders. I'm guessing it'll be that his grounders go up. I agree that Nicasio needs to develop a third pitch, and I think the next-most important feature to track is pitch location. If he can keep locating his pitches down in the strike zone, he could be a decent, if not as good as he was against the Cardinals, No. 3 behind in the Pirates' rotation.

51.8% vs. 43.2% 

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