Pittsburgh Pirates Prospects: Move to Bullpen Benefitting Kyle Nicolas

Is Pirates pitcher Kyle Nicolas starting to figure it out?

Altoona Curve starting pitcher Kyle Nicolas throws against the Akron RubberDucks during the first
Altoona Curve starting pitcher Kyle Nicolas throws against the Akron RubberDucks during the first / Jeff Lange / USA TODAY NETWORK
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Pittsburgh Pirates prospect Kyle Nicolas has made some changes to his arsenal leading to improved results in August. Is this a true turnaround for the righty?

One of the pitching prospects that drew some intrigue out of the gate was right-hander Kyle Nicolas. The Pittsburgh Pirates had acquired him from the Miami Marlins in the Jacob Stallings deal. Nicolas had a very solid 2022 at Double-A Altoona and was looking like he could be a long-term starting pitching option.

The Pirates opted to let Nicolas start the 2023 season at Altoona for a second time. While he might have been repeating the same level, the results were concerning. He pitched to a 4.36 ERA, 4.32 FIP, and 1.47 FIP. Sure, he had improved both his strikeout rate (26.7%) and walk rate (9.6%) from the previous season, but his HR/9 had jumped to 1.34. There was some luck playing in his favor, as he had a .338 batting average on balls in play and an 11.9% HR/FB ratio.

Still, after a few solid starts, the Pirates sent Nicolas to Triple-A, and he got absolutely shelled through his first few outings. He allowed 17 earned runs in his first 12.1 innings. He did strike out 22 batters, but that was about the only positive to write about. He walked a dozen batters and also let up two home runs. That’s when the Pirates moved him to the bullpen, a position that many projected him to eventually land in.

However, the results weren’t what the Pirates were hoping for. He allowed 12 more earned runs over his next 17.1 innings. But after struggling to find consistency throughout the year, Nicolas has been pitching better recently. But is it enough to consider this a turnaround? Has enough changed in his game to give him another chance?

Nicolas has allowed zero earned runs over his last four games and six innings. He’s held opponents to just one hit and one walk while striking out ten. Of course, that’s not even one whole game’s worth of innings. But it is his best stretch of the season. The next question is, has enough changed in his repertoire to consider this anything more than just a hot streak?

Well, when Nicolas first came up to Indy, he was averaging around 94-96 MPH and was throwing three pitches: a fastball, slider, and curveball. This was his pitch selection up until recently. On August 15th, the start of his hot streak, Nicolas stopped throwing his curveball altogether, opting to just focus on his fastball and slider during outings.

Since this change, Nicolas is throwing his fastball harder, coming in at 97-98 MPH and coming within 1 MPH of triple digits multiple times. His slider has also gained a few ticks of velocity, now nearly averaging out at 90 MPH. Along with some added velocity, he’s also gained spin on both pitches, about 100 RPM each.

Now, is it a coincidence that Nicolas started a hot streak once he dropped his curveball? It might be, but only because it’s such a small sample size. 6.1 innings is not very many frames to make any definitive conclusions. It’s far too early to call this a turnaround. But is it promising nonetheless? I’d say so. Maybe this is what Nicolas needs. His curveball was always considered an average at best pitch, and moving to the bullpen is a transition many projected Nicolas to make. Maybe it’s time for him to fully embrace it, and maybe that’s exactly what he’s doing, and if that is what he’s doing, it’s produced a very good hot stretch.

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