We’ve heard and seen how filthy Seattle Mariners’ closer Edwin Diaz has been and how quickly James Pazos has turned into a solid late inning reliever for them as well. However, not much has been said about another important reliever, Juan Nicasio.
With the Mariners poised to make their first postseason berth since 2001 after a record-tying 116 win season, and a somewhat shaky rotation, they will need all the solid bullpen arms they can muster. Nicasio isn’t getting much attention because of some of his bloated numbers, which appear to be caused by bad luck. He’s also been doing a few things that put him at a disadvantage and contribute at least some what to less than positive outcomes.
When you look at most of what Nicasio can control, he’s done well. His 6.08 ERA dwarfs a very solid 2.56 FIP, which is mostly due to a 2.5 percent walk rate and 28.6 percent strikeout rate. His 3.27 xFIP is also solid. The one thing that really pops out with Nicasio is his .410 batting average on balls in play, second highest among qualified relievers.
The high BABIP has really inflated his batting average against which currently sits at .303. The BABIP and the solid FIP/xFIP tells us it’s almost entirely luck and chance going against Nicasio.
There are a couple of issues that do seem to be contributing to the negative numbers Nicasio has compiled this season. The first issue is tunneling, and it certainly applies here. Although I’m usually talking about how well a pitcher is tunneling his pitches, that’s not the case for Nicasio. His pitches hardly tunnel at all, as you can see from the charts below.
As the charts depict, his slider and fastball really separate between 25 and 35 feet, whereas elite tunnelers’ pitches won’t separate until around 15 feet, sometimes even less than that.
With modern technology, batters and pitchers alike have access to a wealth of information that wasn’t available to previous generations of baseball players, and as a result we’re seeing the best “stuff” from pitchers and hitters to give them an advantage. Given the back and forth battle to get every advantage available thanks to modern knowledge and technology, tunneling is a way to swing the advantage back towards the pitcher.
Another issue with Nicasio is that his release point seems to vary and sometimes, as they did in a few appearances in June, they seems to shift quite far. A tight release point is a key for tunneling pitches, as well as locating and commanding the pitches. When you’re not repeating your release point your pitching becomes inefficient and ineffective. Tightening up the release point would help the pitches tunnel more, which would aid Nicasio in fooling hitters more often than he is right now. The chart below shows the game by game release points from this season to show how much of a variation there is.
Another aspect to the unluckiness Nicasio has experienced is while he’s almost expertly locating his slider outside of the zone for a whiff rate of nearly 11 percent, his wOBA against the pitch is a whopping .401. Of the 208 sliders he’s thrown this year, 20 resulted in base hits. The charts below show how well Nicasio has located and commanded the slider.
The release point and tunneling issue coupled with a very unlucky streak really is a perfect storm for less-than-ideal outcomes. Usually a high BABIP is explained by a bad defense but in this case, the Mariners are at the very least slightly above average on the defensive end. In fact, they’re exactly league average in defensive efficiency and well above average in Total Zone fielding runs above average.
Between the unluckiness and some minor issues that could easily be addressed and resolved, Nicasio has a chance to shore up the back end of the bullpen for the Mariners. He’s already held a substantial role through the first half, and as we chug a long deeper into the second half, it would come as a surprise for Nicasio’s luck not to change. Doing so would give the Mariners one of the best back-ends in the league and likely a solid shot at a postseason berth for the first time in 17 years.