Prior to the 2014 season, the Minnesota Twins signed Ricky Nolasco to a team-record four-year, $49 million contract. He was signed to add some consistency to what was the worst starting rotation in baseball in 2013. He had made at least 30 starts in five of the six previous seasons, and he had produced 19.4 fWAR from 2006-2013, tied for the 32nd-most production among starting pitchers over that time. In some ways, his most appealing traits were his durability and distinct average-ness.
Since then, it's been a rocky two-plus seasons for Nolasco in Minnesota. One major piece of his appeal, his durability, has been undercut by two major injuries — the first, elbow soreness in 2014, and later, an ankle injury in 2015. While he's made all 14 of his starts so far in 2016, in total he's pitched only 280.2 innings since joining the Twins. The other piece of his appeal, his roughly league-average production, has been under attack by the forces of sequencing and poor fielding since the first day of his contract.
If we temporarily remove actual runs scored from our evaluation, Nolasco's retained basically every facet of his trademark average-ness. His 12.7 K-BB% is just about as league average as it gets. His groundball and hard-hit rates are just a bit worse than league-average, and his ever-steady velocity is unchanged. No, he hasn't been any sort of ace, but sabermetric measures like FIP, cFIP, SIERA, and DRA all place Nolasco as a roughly league-average pitcher during his tenure with Minnesota.
In fact, his 3.3 fWAR and 2.9 WARP over 280.2 innings still place him at a roughly 2.1-2.4 WAR/200 innings, which is, of course, average. This all shouldn't matter that much, and it probably wouldn't normally warrant an entire article — variation exists in baseball, and certain players are "unlucky" based on their peripheral performance. This is nothing revolutionary. What is interesting is that, when accounting for actual runs scored, Nolasco has literally been the worst starting pitcher in baseball over the last three seasons.
Minimum 250 innings, no starting pitcher from 2014-2016 has had worse than Nolasco's 5.43 ERA. In stark contrast to his fWAR and WARP, he's actually been worth -0.7 rWAR over the same span. This is all taking place in a relatively forgiving ballpark, too. Predictably, no one in baseball has more underperformed their FIP over the last three seasons than Nolasco.
|Clay Buchholz||Red Sox||4.81||3.89||0.92|
|Nathan Eovaldi||- - -||4.40||3.53||0.87|
|Drew Hutchison||Blue Jays||4.89||4.13||0.76|
|Joe Kelly||- - -||4.91||4.40||0.51|
|Wade Miley||- - -||4.54||4.05||0.49|
Nolasco's ERA-FIP margin beats everyone else by an entire half a run. He's always been a bit of a FIP underperformer (prior to joining the Twins, he had a career 0.63 ERA-FIP), but this is beyond what he's experienced in the past. Perhaps most obviously, the Twins' poor fielding probably deserves some of the blame here — per UZR, they've been among the five worst fielding teams over the last three seasons. However, particularly damaging as a pitcher who allows a fair number of fly balls, they've been dead-worst in baseball at outfield defense.
As frustrating as it may be for Nolasco to have a poor defense behind him, it's unlikely that they make up the entire difference. It is kind of difficult to find other reasons for the decline, though. Batters are pulling his pitches at a really high rate, but they've really always done that. His plate discipline numbers haven't really changed over the last three seasons, his groundball rate has been almost exactly his career average, and his strike rate is unchanged. One potential problem is the hard-hit rate, which at 32.0 percent is moderately higher than his 27.6 percent rate from 2006-2013. That feasibly makes all batted balls — whether grounders, fly balls, or line drives — more difficult to field.
It still feels like there must be some poor "luck" or sequencing involved in such a wide margin between his run prevention and fielding independent numbers. Regardless, Nolasco's FIP underperforming track record, combined with very poor defense and harder hit balls, goes a lot of the way toward explaining the difference. Add in some unfortunate sequencing for flavor, and you've probably gotten most of the way there.