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Why Ricky Nolasco is historic

Trying to find an explanation for Nolasco’s incredible ERA-FIP gap.

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Los Angeles Angels Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

For most baseball fans, Ricky Nolasco’s name is a familiar, if unspectacular, one. If grilled about Nolasco, they’d be able to tell you that he is: 1) a pitcher, who 2) has been around the league for around a decade, 3) currently pitches for the Angels (or is it the Twins?), and 4) really isn’t that good.

If fans were pressed for more information, they might come up with the fact that he is right-handed, that he played for the Marlins for a good chunk of his career, and that he has strong control.

What you likely wouldn’t hear is that, dating back to 1901, he is the career leader among starting pitchers in ERA minus FIP (min. 1,500 innings pitched).

Background

Nolasco broke into the league in 2006 five years after he was drafted in the fourth round of the 2001 amateur draft. The Chicago Cubs picked Nolasco out of high school; he played his way up through their system until after the 2005 season, when he was traded — along with Sergio Mitre and Renyel Pinto — to the Marlins in exchange for Juan Pierre.

Nolasco began the 2006 season with the big-league club, starting 22 games that year. He was respectable for a 23-year-old in his first big-league season, finishing the year 11-11 with a 4.82 ERA (ERA+ of 90). He also started one of the strangest streaks seen in baseball in recent history. That same season he posted a FIP of 4.68, meaning his ERA was 14 points higher than his FIP. Over the next 10 seasons (so 2006-2016 total), only once did Nolasco post a lower ERA than FIP. Here’s a chart of Nolasco’s ERAs and FIPs for his first 11 professional seasons:

Nolasco season-by-season ERA and FIP

Season ERA FIP ERA-FIP
Season ERA FIP ERA-FIP
2006 4.82 4.68 0.14
2007 5.48 5.44 0.04
2008 3.52 3.77 -0.25
2009 5.06 3.35 1.71
2010 4.51 3.86 0.65
2011 4.67 3.54 1.13
2012 4.48 3.87 0.61
2013 3.70 3.34 0.36
2014 5.38 4.30 1.08
2015 6.75 3.51 3.24
2016 4.42 4.14 0.28

Only in 2008 was Nolasco’s ERA lower than his FIP, and there are a few pretty absurd seasons in there. His 2009 season, in which the gap between his ERA and FIP was 1.71, is the highest such gap this century and the fourth-highest since baseball was integrated in 1947 — and 2009 was far from a fluke. His 2011 season ranks 16th this century in terms of ERA minus FIP. If he threw three more innings, his 2014 season would also rank in the top 30 this century. Add it all together, and it is suddenly not at all surprising that no pitcher since the creation of the American League has as large a gap between their ERA and FIP as Nolasco (again, min. 1,500 IP).

Given that Nolasco is now over 1,800 innings into his professional career, it’s probably safe to assume there is something more than just bad luck at play here. So what could be the cause? Let’s throw out a few possibilities.

Contact allowed

Whenever a pitcher puts together a stretch in which his ERA is higher than his FIP (or the reverse), the first possible explanation to see what type of contact the pitcher is allowing. The phrase “inducing soft contact” has been used in recent seasons to help explain Marco Estrada’s BABIP, as well as Kyle Hendricksmagical 2016 campaign.

It makes sense. If there is a potential flaw in BABIP (and then FIP), it would be a pitcher who is either better or worse than the “typical” pitcher at creating outs when the ball is put into play. FIP relies on the idea that pitchers don’t have any real control over things after the ball is in play; if that idea is flawed, it could help explain large gaps between ERA and FIP.

So how does Nolasco rank in terms of hard and soft contact rates throughout his career? Of the 96 pitchers with at 1,000 innings pitched from 2006-2016, Nolasco ranked 56th at inducing soft contact and 60th at limiting hard contact. He was not in the top half of either list, but he was also far from the bottom. Below him in both lists are names like Ervin Santana, John Lackey, and Bartolo Colon, all of whom have had success over the past decade, and all of whom have career ERAs either lower than or tied with their career FIPs. Again, we’re talking about a historical ERA-FIP gap from Nolasco, so merely ranking in the bottom half of the majors isn’t enough to explain it.

Pitch mix

Another popular way to explain a pitcher who is able to post a lower ERA than FIP for an extended period of time is his pitch mix. Ben Lindbergh wrote an excellent piece for Grantland back in the day (I realize having the words “Ben Lindbergh” and “Grantland” in the sentence makes the word “excellent” a bit redundant, but still) noting that Johnny Cueto, a noted ERA-FIP master, may have been doing a bit of this with his ability to keep hitters off-balance thanks to an advanced pitch mix.

The pitcher-batter showdown is a mind game that plays out in a chess-like manner over the course of a game, season, and career. For some players whose careers overlap — such as, say, Nolasco and Ryan Zimmerman, who have faced off over 50 times in their respective careers — it’s a decade-long battle. If Nolasco is throwing Zimmerman the same 0-1 curveballs each and every at-bat, could that lead to a bit of an advantage that might slip through the cracks of a stat like FIP?

This one is a little more challenging to measure but, heading over to Nolasco’s Brooks Baseball page can be informative. According to Brooks, Nolasco has a pretty diverse portfolio on 0-0 counts in his career. He starts hitters off with a four-seamer 33.7 percent of the time, a slider 22.7 percent of the time, a sinker 21.4 percent of the time, and a curve 13.2 percent of the time. In terms of two-strike counts, he goes with the four-seamer 31.5 percent of the time, the slider 30.7 percent of the time, and the curve 19.6 percent of the time.

Nolasco relies most heavily on a three-pitch mix, and since none of his pitches are overwhelming, it might be ideal to have a fourth reliable pitch, but there are a great number of successful pitchers who have a three-pitch repertoire.

The one thing that stands out a bit is the fact that when he is ahead of batters 0-2 in the count, he still throws his four-seamer more than any other pitch, which seems less than ideal. But again, this can’t fully explain the largest ERA-FIP gap in modern baseball.

Pitching with men on

One theory that has been floated for certain pitchers whose ERA doesn’t match their FIP is a certain pitcher’s ability (or inability) to pitch with men on base. Some pitchers seem to be able to raise their game, while certain others struggle and potentially lose a bit of focus with runners trying to draw their attention on the basepaths. So what’s the scoop with Nolasco?

Nolasco vs. MLB wOBA allowed

Name Bases empty Men on base
Name Bases empty Men on base
Nolasco 0.323 0.336
MLB 2006-2016 0.317 0.326

Nolasco sees his wOBA allowed go up a tick, but that follows the MLB-wide trend of hitters performing better than pitchers with men on base. In Nolasco’s case, his career wOBA allowed goes up 13 points, whereas the average pitcher’s wOBA has gone up just nine points during that time. Again, this likely isn’t enough on its own, but it’s just another small strike against him.

Defense

A little over a year ago, Spencer Bingol of this very site tackled Nolasco’s struggles with the Twins. Bingol made some of the same observations about Nolasco’s career-long ERA-FIP gap, and he noted that the gap was even larger in his time with the Twins. For Bingol, he commented on the Twins defense — their outfield defense in particular — and the negative impact that the club’s dead-last rankings in that field could have on a fly ball-heavy pitcher like Nolasco. So could poor defense help explain some of the ERA-FIP gap for Nolasco’s entire career? Here are the overall defense ranks (via FanGraphs) for Nolasco’s teams in each season of his career:

Team defense ranks for Nolasco’s career

Season Team Overall Def
Season Team Overall Def
2006 Marlins 22nd
2007 Marlins 25th
2008 Marlins 16th
2009 Marlins 23rd
2010 Marlins 22nd
2011 Marlins 23rd
2012 Marlins 25th
2013 Marlins 21st
2013 Dodgers 8th
2014 Twins 27th
2015 Twins 18th
2016 Twins 29th
2016 Angels 4th

Well, there’s certainly something there. The only occasions during which Nolasco had an above-average defense in his entire career were half-seasons in 2013 and 2016 when he spent the post-trade deadline part of the year with the Dodgers and Angels, respectively. It may not just be a coincidence that Nolasco had a 3.52 ERA with the Dodgers in 2013 and a 3.21 ERA with the Angels after the 2016 trade deadline. From 2006-2013, when Nolasco got his career going, the Marlins ranked a combined 27th in overall defense.

This is certainly the most compelling of the arguments so far, but I still don’t think that alone it is enough to explain the difference. However, if the below-average contact allowed from before is combined with this poor defense and a bit of an inability to put hitters away (from the 0-2 fastball data), it suddenly makes a lot more sense. Nolasco’s ERA-FIP is a bit like Murder on the Orient Express. It isn’t just one factor, but rather a whole train full of them.

The impact on his legacy

Think back to how this article began. Nolasco has been an afterthought for most of his career. Compare him to someone like Johnny Cueto. Nolasco broke into the majors two years before Cueto, but they are within 60 innings of each other for their careers. Cueto has a career ERA of 3.32 and has made the All-Star Game twice. He has finished in the top six of the Cy Young vote three times, and he is thought of as one of the best pitchers in baseball by many. Nolasco has a career ERA of 4.54 and has never made it to the Midsummer Classic. He has never received so much as a Cy Young vote, and he is a complete afterthought when it comes to MLB pitchers, even in the current landscape.

Nolasco has a career FIP just 18 points higher than Cueto (3.95 to 3.77). If we traverse to xFIP for a second, the gap gets even smaller, with the pitchers basically even — Nolasco at 3.90 and Cueto at 3.83.

The point of the last few paragraphs is not to say that Nolasco should be thought of as Cueto’s equal; as was noted, two of the three factors laid out here are in the skill category rather than luck. However, it is interesting to think about how two pitchers like Cueto and Nolasco can have such different legacies when being so similar when it comes to certain well-respected metrics. It just goes to show that we likely still have a ways to go with figuring out just how much control pitchers have on a game.

Stats current through the games of July 16.


Jim Turvey is a baseball diehard who also writes for DRays Bay, Call to the Pen, RotoBaller, and Insider Baseball. You can follow him on Twitter @BaseballTurv.