The enigmatic Juan Nicasio and the value of pitch selection

Mike Zarrilli

After spending the better part of four seasons in the big leagues, are we any closer to solving the riddle that is Juan Nicasio?

It is said (mostly by me) that for whatever reason, most of the verified seamheads of the world have one thing in common: Virtually all of us seem to have a player we hold near and dear to our hearts for no discernible reason whatsoever.

For years, that player for me was Clint Barmes. A forgotten man when the era of Troy Tulowitzki began, Barmes was probably the second best defensive shortstop that the Colorado Rockies ever rostered. The stats probably don’t back me up on this, but I believe it nonetheless.

After Tulo’s arrival and Barmes’ subsequent demotion, the latter player reinvented himself at second base and found himself back in the bigs soon enough, going on to be half of a middle infield that hit 55 home runs in 2009. All of this despite the fact that Barmes could not and indeed still cannot hit anything on the outside half of home plate. I always hoped that one day he’d learn to step into those pitches to dump them into right field for a hit, but alas, he never did.

Barmes is still playing Major League Baseball (miraculously) for the Pittsburgh Pirates, but I don’t see him that much anymore and my intrigue is wont to travel elsewhere, and for reasons I cannot explain it has settled on Juan Nicasio.

Like Barmes, Nicasio, now in his fourth MLB season, appears to be nothing terribly special. I know deep down inside that Nicasio is probably destined for bullpen work. I know it. But something inside me every season wants to believe that this is the year where Nicasio turns the corner and becomes the pitcher that had such lofty expectations when he was called upon in 2011 to help a depleted Rockies pitching staff.

Not to rehash the gruesome neck injury he suffered that season, or the knee injury that deprived him of most of the 2012 campaign, but I do sometimes lament what the loss of those offseasons might have cost the young right-hander in terms of his long-term development.

When Nicasio reached the majors, it was with the caveat that his secondary offerings would require some significant improvement; progress he was deprived of because of those injuries.

This season once again we were promised a new and improved Juan Nicasio. His secondary pitches are there, I was assured by folks that I trust to be in the know, and he has matured into a player with a much more resilient mentality than we’ve seen in the past.

The latter part of that statement appears to be true. In my own humble opinion, Nicasio has ‘battled’ far more than his 2013 iteration, who often looked irritated to have to take the mound in the sixth inning if Colorado had given him a lead.

But what of the secondary offerings? Nicasio has been inconsistent as always and his underlying numbers aren't particularly overwhelming, but the results, both in terms of ERA and win-loss percentage (small sample size be damned) have been slightly better than the past three years.

Since we’re all in agreement that Nicasio’s success hinges on his ability to consistently throw something other than a fastball for a strike, I believe that it’s probably useful to explore how much that factor has already played into his successes and failures.

Please regard:

Date Team Opp GS FB% SL% CH% XX% WHIP ERA FIP
Totals - - - - - - 11 69.80% 23.80% 6.40% 0.10% 1.32 4.06 4.87
5/30/2014 COL @CLE 1 65.00% 26.00% 9.00% 1.93 9.64 4.99
5/24/2014 COL @ATL 1 70.90% 26.20% 2.90% 1 0 3.4
5/18/2014 COL SDP 1 70.70% 26.30% 3.00% 1.67 6 7.23
5/11/2014 COL @CIN 1 67.70% 12.90% 19.40% 1 3 4.73
5/6/2014 COL TEX 1 63.60% 23.90% 12.50% 1.4 1.8 8.26
5/1/2014 COL NYM 1 67.40% 25.30% 7.40% 0.57 0 2.92
4/26/2014 COL @LAD 1 82.50% 13.40% 4.10% 1.00% 2.31 10.38 9.3
4/20/2014 COL PHI 1 76.60% 21.30% 2.10% 1.6 7.2 6.86
4/15/2014 COL @SDP 1 69.70% 22.20% 8.10% 1.17 3 2.56
4/9/2014 COL CHW 1 68.40% 30.50% 1.10% 2 7.2 1.86
4/4/2014 COL ARI 1 64.80% 34.10% 1.10% 0.71 1.29 3.64

What we have here is the Nicasio’s pitch types by start, according to Fangraphs.com. In addition, I took the liberty of adding ERA, WHIP, and FIP by start to give some reference of how he fared in each contest.

It appears to show a rather loose correlation between the success and frequency of secondary offerings thrown, especially outside of an outlier in Cleveland last week in which Juan’s use of both secondary offerings (he usually chooses one or the other) indicates that perhaps he just didn't have it with any of his pitches that night.

But maybe it would be more accurate to say that the chart seems to show an inverse correlation between success and fastball usage, especially outside of one dazzling appearance against the Atlanta Braves. In fact, of Nicasio’s outings in which he threw his fastball 70–percent of the time or more, that game against the Braves is the only one that generated good results.

It may seem counter-intuitive that Nicasio’s fastball appears to be his Achilles heel, since it’s widely accepted that it’s his best offering, but actually it makes sense. It’s not that the fastball isn't a plus pitch; it’s that the lack of consistency with secondary offerings allows hitters to sit on the fastball. It’s also the reason why his batting average against jumps from .235 in the second time through the order to a staggering .328 the third time through.

Perhaps more importantly, the major issue for all two-pitch starters in Major League Baseball is that they are susceptible to ugly platoon splits, and Nicasio’s are as ugly as any two-pitch starter in baseball, other than Cleveland’s Justin Masterson. How ugly you ask? How about a .304 average against by lefties versus .219 for right-handed hitters.

Looking at the graph above, what Nicasio appears to be attempting to do is close the gap on those splits through increased use of a changeup against lefty-heavy lineups. In the four games in which he utilized his changeup at least 8-percent of the time, opponents started five, three, seven, and five left-handed hitters of their starting eight (in descending order of how often the changeup was utilized). More notably, the premier hitter in each of the respective opposing lineups was left-handed (Joey Votto, Prince Fielder, Michael Brantley… I guess San Diego doesn't really have a premier hitter).

It actually served him well in the first three of those four starts before Cleveland’s almost exclusively lefty lineup gave the right-hander trouble. It stands to reason that Nicasio should have been trusting his changeup more in that start, instead of trying to substitute the slider.

The conclusion to be drawn from this is fairly intuitive: Nicasio will be a much better pitcher of he is able to be effective with all three pitches, but he is obviously still a work in progress.

For those looking to believe in Nicasio’s promise, he utilized his changeup at least 8-percent of the time in only seven starts all of last season. He is already at four this year. He is working on it, and his improved attitude will almost certainly come in handy in that venture.

In short, even after this venture into Nicasio’s pitch selection, it takes quite a bit of faith to believe that he is destined for more than bullpen work in the long term. But, as I did with Clint Barmes, I will always hold out hope that he finally turns that corner and fulfills the promise we placed in him back in 2011.

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