Juan Nicasio As A Starter
Pittsburgh Pirates right hander Juan Nicasio is in a battle foe the last rotation spot with Ryan Vogelsong, as Jeff Locke has been named to be officially in the 2016 starting rotation. Nicasio has been a favorite for fans to be in the rotation, in part because the 6’3″ and 230 pound 29-year-old pitcher has wowed in spring. In the Grapefruit league, Juan has pitched in 5 games, starting 4, pitching in 15 innings giving up 0 runs, 10 hits, 5 walks, and 24 strikeouts. He has a 0.00 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, a 4.80 K/BB, .189 batting average against, a 2.80 ground out/air out, and 81 percent of his pitches have been for strikes. Juan has been a shinning light for the dim rotation this spring. But there is a question the Pirates have to answer, is this another amazing job by Ray Searage, or is he the 2016 version of 2015 Taijuan Walker, a pitcher who dominated all spring only to struggle in the season?
Juan Nicasio was a full-time starter for the Colorado Rockies from 2011-2013 and after starting in the rotation in 2014, Nicasio finished in the bullpen, and that is where he pitched out of last season for the Los Angeles Dodgers. On the surface, his 4.92 ERA in 287.1 innings looks bad. But it can also be deceiving. The big obvious from those three seasons is he pitched at Coors Field, a tremendous hitters park, backs up the fact his FIP was at only 4.05. Juan Nicasio should have been better from 2011-2013 than he actually was. But the best indicator could be his 2014 Pittsburgh Pirates neutralized stats, here is an explanation of how this works. His neutralized numbers show a significant boost to what he was with the Rockies, being his ERA would have been 3.875 for those three years. That 3.875 ERA is a better ERA for what Nicasio would look to accomplish, being a number 4 or 5 starter behind Francisco Liriano, Gerrit Cole, and Jon Niese. For comparison, over the last three seasons, Ryan Vogelsong’s 2014 Pittsburgh Pirates neutralized ERA is 5.073. So over each pitchers last three seasons where they were a full-time starter, Juan Nicasio’s neutralized ERA is 1.198 points better. For sake of comparison, it puts everything into equal perspective.
But there is another issue with Nicasio as a starter, and that is his pitch repertoire. In those three seasons where Nicasio was a starter, he threw his fourseam fastball 68.59 percent of the time averaging 93.96 miles per hour, his slider 19.75 percent of the time averaging 84.21 miles per hour, his change-up 7.43 percent of the time averaging 84.49 miles per hour, and his sinker 4.18 percent of the time averaging 92.38 miles per hour. A starting pitcher needs to have more than two pitches, even AJ Burnett had a variety using a combination of a fourseam fastball, a sinking fastball, a slower curve, and a faster curve. He used two pitch types but the variety of those types allowed Burnett to be an effective pitcher. If the work Nicasio has put in on his change-up allows the pitch to be an additional third pitch and serving as the compliment to his fastball and slider, Nicasio’s arsenal would be more apt to pitching out of the rotation. His two pitch offerings almost made him predictable, as from 2011-2013 Nicasio threw his heater 75 percent of the time and his slider 17 percent of the time to left-handed hitters with two strikes. His predictability of throwing his fastball with two strikes, and throwing it 72 percent of the time to lefties as a whole, shows up in the .265/.342/.460 that lefties hit off Nicasio from 2011-2013. These numbers were able to improve as a reliever, due in part to facing batters only once per game, but to be an effective starter he will either need to start mixing up his pitchers more or rely on the change up, something that pitching in relief can mask.
Over all, Nicasio looks like he can be a potential solid back-end of the rotation starter, especially compared to Ryan Vogelsong. His neutralized numbers show that he has been better than Vogelsong the last three seasons when each has been a starter respectively. Nicasio’s biggest concern is the fact he has only relied on two pitches his whole career could spell trouble, but working on that his change-up to be his third pitch, Nicasio may now have the weapons to last in the rotation. Getting him out of the hitter friendly park that is Coors field did him wonders last season, working with Ray Searage should work even more wonders, the time is now to see if Nicasio can start or not. To start the season, putting in the pitcher with the most upside is a decision many want, however it is not the safe one, something the club may not want to risk after they’ve had slow starts the last couple years. Personally I think it is a step the Bucs should look to take, and for the Pirates to really find out if he’s the next marvelous project Ray Searage turned out or the next pitcher who was a spring training wonder, they need to put him in the rotation.
*Numbers from baseball-reference.com. Pitch date from brooksbaseball.com