2011 Rockies Player Review: Juan Nicasio

Juan Nicasio's career will always have the above event as part of the narrative. He is working hard to ensure it's only a small part.

No Colorado Rockie had the kind of high in 2011 that Juan Nicasio did. No one had the kind of low Nicasio endured either. The ride of Nicasio's 2011 included more G-forces than the most poorly designed Roller Coaster Tycoon coaster.

Coming in to the season, Nicasio was a 24-year-old who had yet to pitch above A-ball, an arm typically found at the tail end of Rockies' Top Ten prospects. Nine elite starts in AA later (6.30 K/BB, 2.22 ERA) and Nicasio was in the big leagues, surpassing a half dozen prospects and veteran depth options in the progress.

As is typical for a rookie pitcher, Nicasio has spats of struggles and promising stretches, but the latter was most prominent. In thirteen big league starts, the right-hander finished seven innings five times. For comparison, Ubaldo Jimenez managed that feat just six times in 21 starts with Colorado.

The kid was unfazed by Coors Field as well, throwing seven innings and allowing just one unearned run in his big league debut. For the year, he had a 1.98 ERA in seven Coors Field starts. In three July starts at home, the Dominican threw 22 innings and only permitted one run.

Nicasio possesses the rare combination great velocity (94mph average, ability to reach the high 90's) and elite control (4.49 K/BB in 471.1 MiLB IP). In a moderate sample size, both assets manifested themselves with continued promise. By the time his season ended, Nicasio had put up 1.4 fWAR and a 3.22 K/BB. Translated to a full season, that would be an exceptional 3.6 fWAR (3.8 rWAR) season and a franchise record strikeout to walk ratio. Not bad for a rookie with just nine starts above A-ball.

W-L GS fWAR rWAR K/9 BB/9 HR/9 IP H R ER HR BB K ERA WHIP
2011 - Juan Nicasio 4-4 13 1.4 1.5 7.28 2.26 1.00 71.2 73 35 33 8 18 58 4.014 1.27

As we all know, Nicasio was robbed of making the last ten starts of the season on August 5 when a line drive struck him in the back of his head. Knocked unconscious, Nicasio fell to the ground, fracturing his C1 vertebrae, the top of the spine which supports the skull.

Suddenly, an incredibly promising pitcher was looking at the end of his career before it really even started.

Grade - A

It would be difficult to give Nicasio any grade lower than an A just given the fight he has put up after his season ended. However, if we are to compare him to his peers - rookie pitchers - well, he still gets an A. A 3.8 rWAR pace and franchise record K/BB pace is hard to find issue with. Compare him to the peers he shared in April in AA and he looks even better. In truth, Juan Nicasio is the best Colorado Rockies story of 2011, if not the last four years.

***

2012

In the past five months, several fears have been voiced. Will he live? Will he ever walk again? Will he ever set foot on a baseball field? Will he ever be able to pitch a baseball again at all? Will the injury ruin his motion and sabotage his stuff? Nicasio's fearless nature has led to him destroying those barriers. At last report, he has been running, throwing, lifting weights and operating like any other player.

Even more impressive, his velocity had returned to 96mph in bullpen sessions by December. His accuracy did not suffer either:

(Rockies director of Latin Operations Rolando) Fernandez estimates that Nicasio threw 52 strikes in 55 pitches in three separate side sessions.

That is impressive under any circumstances for any player, anywhere. , forever and ever and always. Greg Maddux is even impressed. Nicasio still has three hurdles to clear, all of them mental:

  1. Pitching to live batters in a bullpen session. Pitching to a glove doesn't bring danger. Pitching to a man with a bat does. He will be doing this in coming weeks.
  2. Pitching to live batters in a game. Opposing hitters are anything but a controlled environment. This will happen in seven weeks.
  3. Pitching effectively after a line drive flies past him (or heaven forbid, strikes him) in a game. There is no telling when this could happen, but it is certainly something to worry about.
In the months following the injury, Nicasio has not only passed every test in front of him, he has completely destroyed them, making one wonder if expectations weren't set too low (they weren't). His recovery has been so rapid and so encouraging, he has been cleared to pitch in Spring Training, is expected to be in the Opening Day rotation, and Dan O'Dowd's desire to add a proven starter has cooled.

It is true that Nicasio's recovery is incomplete, and he may yet have difficulty returning to being an effective pitcher. But if we learned anything about Juan Nicasio in 2011, it was that he is capable of obliterating expectations on field - and off. How could you bet against him?
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