Three Pittsburgh Pirates pitchers who have made changes

The Pirates have had some of their pitchers succeed after making some changes to their pitch arsenal.
Sep 29, 2023; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA;  Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Hunter Stratton
Sep 29, 2023; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Hunter Stratton / Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
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Kyle Nicolas

Kyle Nicolas was a former second-round pick by the Miami Marlins who was traded to the Pirates for Jacob Stallings. A hard-throwing right-hander throughout the minor leagues, Nicolas had a strong second half to 2023 and made his debut that year. While his debut wasn't great, he pieced together a solid final few weeks of the year. Nicolas opened 2024 at Triple-A after an unimpressive Spring Training but is back in action in the big leagues and looks better than ever before.

Nicolas has only pitched three innings so far, but he already has five Ks. While he's walked two batters, he's allowed just an 86.8 MPH exit velocity in the microscopic sample size. Batters have a whiff rate of 36.8% against his stuff and a chase rate of 30.8%. Both are well above average, with the former being in elite territory. For reference, Spencer Strider was in the 98th percentile of whiff percentage at 38.6%.

The young reliever has his elite fastball to thank for that. He's throwing harder than ever, averaging out at 98.2 MPH, an uptick from 96.8 MPH last year. The fastball plays way up for a few reasons. The first is the ride through the strike zone. His four-seamer only has 10.5 inches of drop with nearly as much horizontal break. Nicolas releases the ball nearly seven feet in front of the rubber. This adds an extra tick of velocity to his already powerful fastball. What might be a 98 MPH fastball on the radar might look like 99-100 MPH out of the hand.

Nicolas's primary breaking pitch is his slider. He throws it very hard, averaging 91.5 MPH, which would tie him with Mike Baumann and Mackenzie Gore for the hardest-thrown sliders in baseball right now. However, the pitch has a well above-average horizontal break at 4.5 inches and 29 inches of drop.

Nicolas has gained some movement on his fastball, but the pitch he's truly reworked is his curveball. Like the rest of his pitches, it has gained velocity. He went from throwing it 83.8 MPH last year to 85.7 MPH this year. The vertical movement hasn't changed much at 49.8 inches compared to 50.1 inches last year, but he's throwing it with much more horizontal break. He's now averaging 9.3 inches of break compared to just 3.7 inches last season. Nicolas' curveball has gained nearly 300 RPM, going from 2400 to just shy of 2700 this year.

Nicolas' curveball was definitely his worst pitch heading into this year. It had worse movement compared to his fastball and slider. But if it's truly a third above-average pitch, it could make him an elite relief pitcher for the Pirates. His fastball is easily a plus-plus pitch, if not an elite offering, while his slider is a plus pitch. Now, if his curveball is a reliable third offering, he could be a lockdown arm in the future.