The reemergence of Ricky Nolasco

Ricky Nolasco has emerged as a strong starter for the Dodgers in 2013. - Stephen Dunn

After a string of mediocre seasons with the Miami Marlins, Ricky Nolasco has reemerged as a solid major league starter, something that will make the Dodgers only more formidable come October.

After his fourth straight underwhelming year in 2012, one could have been excused for giving up on Ricky Nolasco. During a season in which the Marlins and all their grand plans proved a profound disappointment, Nolasco fit right in with Miami’s mediocrity. Both his strikeout (15.0%) and walk (5.7%) rates represented five-year worsts in 2012, and the right-hander’s fourth straight year with an ERA in the mid-to-upper 4.00s foretold even tougher times ahead as Nolasco aged into his early thirties.

The only positive to be taken from the past few seasons was Nolasco’s ability to stay healthy, as the 30-year-old averaged 185 innings pitched per season since 2009. Considering how unimpressive his results and peripherals were last year, however, the notion that any team would seek to acquire Nolasco from Miami seemed dubious at best.

Yet, as often happens in baseball, Nolasco confounded all conventional wisdom, pitching well enough for the Marlins in early 2013 that the Dodgers came calling in July. Since joining Los Angeles, furthermore, Nolasco has been spectacular, posting a 3.31 FIP and allowing just 15 earned runs in 61.1 innings to go along with 51 strikeouts and 15 walks.

In fact, the right-hander has been pitching well for quite some time now. Over the past calendar year, Nolasco has compiled a 3.28 FIP, a 4.0 K/BB ratio, and 3.7 WAR, which ranks 24th among all major league pitchers over that stretch.

His reemergence as a solid big league starter has only added further quality to a deep Los Angeles rotation.

More noteworthy than his recent success, though, is how Nolasco is attacking opposing hitters, which represents another way in which he has bucked standard convention. As the chart below shows, Nolasco has excelled despite a large dip in recent seasons in the amount of fastballs he throws:

So far in 2013, Nolasco has thrown his slider more than any other pitch, while also mixing in a curveball and splitter with regularity. The Dodger righty has often pitched backwards, frequently featuring his offspeed pitches to begin at-bats or when down in the count. Against right-handed hitters, for example, Nolasco has thrown his slider 41.3% of the time this season, including 42% of the time when down in the count, which is far more than any of his other offerings.

That slider has helped enable Nolasco’s recent success, with opposing hitters batting just .172 against the pitch this season. The offering also has the highest whiff/swing percentage of all his pitches at 37.7%.

In his most recent start, Nolasco struck out 11 batters over eight innings against the Chicago Cubs. His slider’s effectiveness was on full display, moreover, with eight of those 11 punch-outs coming on the offering.

With the postseason now just a month away, Nolasco has really begun to fine-tune his approach. The 30-year-old has only increased his reliance on his two breaking balls, throwing his slider and curveball 48% of the time in six August starts. The results have been impressive, as Nolasco has surrendered just seven earned runs in 38.1 innings pitched, while holding opponents to a .543 OPS in August.

Such success bodes well for the Dodgers, who can boast two quality starters in Nolasco and Hyun-Jin Riu behind aces Clayton Kershaw and Zach Greinke. With Nolasco’s swinging-strike percentage (10.5%) and contact percentage (76.2%) at career-best levels, the right-handers strong performances look likely to continue.

Given his track record coming into 2013, no one would have predicted this type of performance from Nolasco. But with the Dodgers headed to the postseason, the former Marlin has a great chance to make an even bigger mark in October.

. . .

All stats courtesy of Brooks Baseball and FanGraphs.com.

Alex Skillin is a regular contributor to Beyond the Box Score and also works as a Staff Editor for SoxProspects.com. He writes, mostly about baseball and basketball, at a few other places across the Internet. You can follow him on Twitter at @AlexSkillin.

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