Kyle Nicolas is an underrated and overlooked player heading into 2024, but could have a strong season out of the Pittsburgh Pirates bullpen
By the end of next season, the Pittsburgh Pirates will likely have seen many rookies join their ranks. Many are obviously looking forward to Paul Skenes’ debut, but Jared Jones and Anthony Solometo are also exciting pitching prospects who could command rotation spots by the end of the season. Others like Thomas Harrington, Bubba Chandler, and Jackson Wolf may make their debuts next season.
That’s a lot of higher-profile names. But the Pirates saw one rookie debut last season who could be super underrated going into 2024. That’s hard-throwing right-hander Kyle Nicolas. Nicolas may even be in a high-leverage situation by the end of the season based on just how good his stuff looked during his brief Major League stint in late September.
Let’s first start at the beginning of the 2023 season because if I were to tell you that Kyle Nicolas could end up being one of the Pirates’ best rookies heading into 2024 back in June of this year, you wouldn’t have believed me. Nicolas had mostly been used as a starter for his first 76.2 innings of the season but had an atrocious 6.10 ERA, 4.94 FIP, and 1.70 WHIP. The one positive is that he had a 26.7% strikeout rate. But he also allowed 11.7% of batters to reach via free pass and allowed 1.53 home runs per nine innings.
Nicolas had been moved to the bullpen more frequently at the end of this ice-cold stretch. However, once he got acclimated to his new position, he showed much more promise. Nicolas allowed just two earned runs through his final 15 innings at Triple-A. While his 10.3% walk rate was still unimpressive, it was slightly better than the league average in the International League. But he clocked in with a 41.4% strikeout rate and significantly cut his home run rate down to just 0.60-per-9.
Nicolas made his Major League debut on September 19th, and it was not one to be too proud of. The young right-hander allowed six earned runs while only making one out. Four of the seven batters he faced either got a hit or a walk. One of said batters went yard. But while his first impression wasn’t great, his final few games of the season looked much better. Nicolas would fire off five more frames, only allow a single earned run, struck out seven, and only walk two. None of the four hits he allowed left the park.
Okay, so it was a small sample size. Anyone can have 15 really good innings in the minor leagues or five good innings in the Major Leagues. Sure, it was a good stretch, but that’s not why Nicolas could be one of the Pirates’ most underrated rookies in 2024. It’s just how good his pitches looked when he came up late last season.
Nicolas’ fastball has a lot of traits similar to Gerrit Cole’s. Nicolas averaged out at 96.8 MPH with 2409 RPM of spin, while Cole’s averaged out at 96.7 MPH with 2412 RPM. However, here’s why Nicolas’ fastball is better than Cole’s. Nicolas’ four-seamer has more ride through the zone with only 11.9 inches of drop compared to Cole with 12 inches of drop. But in terms of horizontal movement, Nicolas had 9.2 inches of break on average, while Cole sat at 8.4 inches. The difference between the two is Nicolas had a 97% active spin rate while Cole had 94%.
Another reason Nicolas’ fastball is better than Cole’s is because of the release point. Nicolas was in the 82nd percentile of pitch release point extension at 6.8 inches, while Cole was only in the 36th percentile at 6.3 inches. That may not seem like much, but to the batter, Nicolas’ fastball looks more like 97.7 MPH out of the hand against Cole, whose release point makes his fastball look like 96.4 MPH, a difference of over one whole MPH.
Nicolas’ fastball wasn’t the only nasty pitch he threw. His slider also had above-average movement with 32 inches of drop and 5.3 inches of break. Nicolas’ fastball was his bread and butter, but don’t sleep on his lesser-used curveball. It had 50.2 inches of drop. Stuff+, a measurement that says how good a pitch is based on its velocity, spin, movement/break, and release point, all had Nicolas’ stuff as 124 or better. Both of his breaking balls were above 130. This is a stat on the same scale as wRC+, where 100 is always average.
Overall, Stuff+ put Nicolas’ offerings at 130. Among pitchers who pitched at least five innings last season, Nicolas had the 19th-best Stuff+. That outdoes a lot of guys whose stuff is the first thing you think of when you see their names: Jhoan Duran (129), Jordan Hicks (126), Spencer Strider (125), Hunter Green (124), and Tyler Glasnow (121), just to name a few.
Nicolas could be setting up games for David Bednar next season. Sure, Colin Holderman and Carmen Mlodzinski have had more Major League success, but if Nicolas could reach his ceiling, he could even be better than Bednar. That might be a bold statement, but it’s the best possible outcome for Nicolas, who’s three pitches could not have looked any better.