Juan Nicasio’s Difference

Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports /

Juan Nicasio was originally signed by the Pittsburgh Pirates on December 10, 2015 after the Los Angeles Dodgers granted him free agency.

Juan Nicasio came into spring training with the Pittsburgh Pirates, with the plan presumably being a bullpen arm. With the Los Angeles Dodgers the year prior, Nicasio pitched in 53 games with one of them being a start, and he pitched well posting a 3.86 ERA and a 2.83 FIP.

He struggled mightily as a starter in years prior with the Colorado Rockies, as he posted a 5.12 ERA in 69 starts, and overall in Colorado he posted a 5.03 ERA in 88 games as a member of the Rockies. However, the 29-year-old  right hander pitched extraordinary in the month of March when Spring Training came around. In his five appearances, four being starts, Nicasio posted a 0.00 ERA with a 2.80 ground out to air out ratio. Many fans clamored for him to start the season in the rotation, and Neal Huntington and Clint Hurdle decided that was the right decision.

Juan Nicasio made his Pirates debut in-game three of the season on April 6th, and the Pirates won the game completing the sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals. He went six innings and allowed one run, he struck out seven batters and walked zero batters. He was rather efficient, as he threw only 84 pitches to 20 batters, two over the minimum, which averages out to 4.2 pitches per batter. Simply, he pitched well and looked like the Pirates made the correct decision in putting him into the rotation.

Then came Juan Nicasio’s second start, coming at Comerica Park against the Detroit Tigers. Nicasio only lasted three innings, and as efficient as he was in start one, that is how inefficient he was in start number two. Nicasio faced 19 batters and threw 94 pitches, only 52 for strikes. He walked five batters and allowed four runs, all earned. He looked completely lost against the Tigers hitters, and he did not look like the Juan Nicasio in both Spring Training and in his first start.

That trend continued, and Juan Nicasio posted a 5.05 ERA and a 4.71 FIP in his 12 starts. Overall before moving to the bullpen full-time because of that one outing in relief against the Cardinals on June 10th coming before his last start, Nicasio posted a 5.83 ERA and a 4.92 FIP. He performed really horrendous, in part due to his 39.2 ground ball percentage, but also because of his pitch selections, which will be taken a look at later on in this article.

Pittsburgh Pirates
Jun 2, 2016; Miami, FL, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Juan Nicasio (12) throws a pitch during the first inning against the Miami Marlins at Marlins Park. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports /

Since moving to the bullpen full-time and since returning from the restricted list on June 26th, Nicasio has pitched extremely well. He has posted a 2.93 ERA, and an even better 1.98 FIP, and a xFIP of 2.47 which indicates good results for the future. His ground ball rate of 53.8 percent is much better, and he is now getting 2.19 ground balls per fly ball. His strikeout rate is at a great rate of 33.6 percent. So in his 27.2 innings, Nicasio is striking out about a third of the batters he has faced and is getting more ground balls in the pen than he was a starter, a huge reason for his success. As Marty wrote just a few days ago, Juan Nicasio has been really good out of the pen.

In fact, Nicasio is having this success with an extremely high batting average on balls in play, as it is a clip of .385 since June 26th. As that number starts to regress to the mean, it was .324 before June 26th, Nicasio will only get better. If you’re unfamiliar with fielding independent pitcher, FIP, that is a big reason Nicasio’s is below 2.00 right now.

The other thing that he has really done well is decreasing his walk rate, as it is a 6.9 percent since June 26th, but before it was 9.6 percent. He’s limiting his walks while missing bats and getting ground balls, a solid recipe for success.

What has the large change been though for Nicasio? It is really simple, he went from a two pitch pitcher who tried to mix in two other pitches to show them to the hitter, to just being an extreme two pitch pitcher. From April 3rd to June 16th, Nicasio was relying on his four seam fastball (62.23 percent) and his slider (25.95 percent), but he also tried to mix in his sinker (7.48 percent) and his change up (3.66 percent).

Since June 26th, Nicasio has increased his four seam some to 64.84 percent of the time. The key difference is the amount he has dropped the sinker and change up from his arsenal. Nicasio has been using his sinker only 2.44 percent of the time and his change up 1.42 percent, which has allowed him to use his slider 30.69 percent of the time since June 26th.

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Against left handed hitters, his pitch usage can really be seen against left handed batters, as those have killed him this season hitting .316/.381/.608, but the BAbip of .387 is unsustainable. Before moving to the pen full-time, Nicasio was doing most of the same, relying on his four seam and slider, while trying to sprinkle in his sinker and change. In the 33 at bats ending with a slider, lefties had a slugging percentage of .818. So what has Nicasio done since that June 16th start? He’s decreased his slider usage against left handed hitters from 20.23 percent of the time to 19.92 percent of the time.

He’s also severely decreased his sinker and change up usage, and increased his four seam usage against left handers from 64.72 percent to 74.27 percent. After all, his best pitch is the four seam fastball, and in the 28 at bats ending in his four seam since June 26th, lefties are hitting .250 with a .393 slugging. Using his best much more to hitters who have killed him, is a smart strategy and it has paid off so far in the overall picture, and he does not have to face lefties as much out of the pen as he did as a starter.

Overall, Nicasio’s change in approach to hitters has been the reason for his success. As a starter and that one relief appearance, Nicasio was only getting a whiff on 17.32 percent of swings on his four seam and a whiff on 30.57 percent of swings on his slider. Those numbers since June 26th are 28.77 and 33.33 respectively. More whiffs per swing is always a good, especially for a reliever, so with Nicasio’s massive improvement, it should not come as a huge shock to see his pitches increase in whiffs per swing. He’s turned himself into a solid reliever for this reason.

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The key for Nicasio transferring from the starting rotation to being an effective pitcher out of the pen for the Pirates has been his ability to miss bats and get ground balls, while decreasing his walks. This wasn’t the natural regression in terms of BAbip, but the ground ball rate was certainly going to only improve. His ability to change his arsenal has been huge, as it has allowed him to feature his two best pitches – four seam and slider – much more, and that was part of my original concern back in March:

"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."

I thought Juan Nicasio would have made a solid back-end starter, but I was wrong. The fact he’s now getting ground balls and missing bats is a huge step forward, and part of the reason the club is 22-16, ranking fourth since and including June 26th. The Pirates bullpen became deeper and gave Clint Hurdle another option. The new improvements for Nicasio was Juan big difference for the right hander. With one more year of control, his last year of arbitration, the Pirates will have Nicasio for another season next year. His dominance in the pen followed a simple path, and it is paying off.

*Numbers from fangraphs and pitch data from brooks baseball