• Secret to Success? Nolasco Staying Inside

    On Tuesday afternoon the Minnesota Twins introduced the most expensive free agent in the organization’s history.

    Outside on the scoreboard, high above the team’s dormant field, a graphic splashed welcoming Ricky Nolasco to Twins Territory. At the press conference cameras rolled, questions were lobbed and Nolasco (with his impressively manicured beard) sat between general manager Terry Ryan and his agent, Matt Sosnick, having hopes pinned on him that he will help dig the franchise out from the bottom of the division.

    New uniform, smiles, handshakes, photo ops.


    Ryan spoke to Nolasco’s workhorse pedigree, his ability to miss bats and his character. His agent compared him to the muscle cars the pitcher loves to collect. Media members peppered him with inquiries ranging from his thoughts on the move to the American League to if the taste of the postseason with the Dodgers whet his appetite for more playoff action.

    When the song and dance ended, I tapped Nolasco for a quick sidebar on his pitching style.

    Based on research conducted at the beginning of the offseason, I asked Nolasco if his 2013 success coincided with his increased frequency of pitching inside to opponents.

    “I think it is a big part of any starting pitcher’s game,” Nolasco answer, reciting pitching wisdom imparted from grizzled pitching coaches to pitchers for generations. “I think you’ve got to pitch inside and open up the outside part of the plate for later on in the game. That’s always the process you want to do as a starting pitcher.”

    Hard in, soft away. Live to pitch another day. That is the mantra of pitchers everywhere since the dawn of the game.

    However, a few seasons ago Nolasco and his coaches with the Marlins noticed he had been drifting away from this technique and hitters were able to extend their arms, a sure sign that pitches were further off the hitter’s belt and more in the swing zone.

    That is when he made a minor change.

    Maybe it was simply intended to be a placebo effect to raise his awareness, but Nolasco, at the behest of his pitching coach, shifted a half-foot on the rubber toward the first base side.

    “One of my pitching coaches in Miami, Randy St. Clair, was the one who suggested it,” he offered. “Obviously it has been a big positive influence for me and my pitching style and a big change helping me get back to where I should be able to pitch numbers-wise.”

    The results were noticeable. From 2011 to July 2012, Nolasco held a 4.76 ERA with a hardy 1.40 WHIP. Following the change, he has had a 3.71 ERA with a tidier 1.23 WHIP.

    “[St. Clair] told me a lot of the times when I was getting in trouble and getting hit was when things were just barely coming back on the plate so he said that maybe if we move over six to eight inches on that side it that would prevent those two or three pitches that were hurting me a game, that would keep them out and away from the middle of the plate a little more. And he was right.”

    Indeed.

    Prior to last year’s trade deadline, Fangraph.com’s Jeff Sullivan showed visual evidence of Nolasco’s rubber shift with Pitch F/X graphs and screen grabs. In the span from 2011 to July 2012, Nolasco’s strikeout rate had fallen significantly to 16% and his well-hit average had jumped to .217. Post-shift, the strikeout rate climbed back to league-average (19%) and the well-hit average dropped to .173. It was like Nolasco was a new pitcher, or at the very least his pre-2011 self again.

    Perhaps the success goes back to working inside. According to ESPN Stats & Info, since August of 2012 he’s been able to lock in on the inner-half of the plate more with all his pitches. Between 2011 and July 2012, Nolasco’s pitches were hitting the inside portion of the zone just 23% of the time (compared to the 28% league average). Since? He’s been going inside at a 29% rate and the overall numbers are hard to argue with.

    Welcome to Minnesota Ricky. The weather’s about to get nasty. Remember to stay inside.
    This article was originally published in blog: Secret to Success? Nolasco Staying Inside. started by Parker Hageman
    Comments 10 Comments
    1. Parker Hageman's Avatar
      Parker Hageman -
      So is what you are saying......... is that Nolasco is a new pitcher and has improved to "league average", and that that is success?
      Nope, but signing a $49 million dollar contract is success.

      Also, so is hanging out with Lil' Jon.

    1. Marta Shearing's Avatar
      Marta Shearing -
      Maybe Nolasco can teach Rick Anderson a thing or two. Baker, Slowey, Blackburn literally seemed scared to pitch inside. I honestly think they were mortified the hitter would stare them down or, gulp, CHARGE THE MOUND!
    1. Riverbrian's Avatar
      Riverbrian -
      In my Opinion... Twins Pitchers could throw inside a lot more.

      Throwing inside takes confidence and toughness.

      This speaks well of Nolasco.

      Bringing in Nolasco is a solid step in the right direction.
    1. big dog's Avatar
      big dog -
      I agree with both above commenters- the Twins have too many pitchers who nibble outside and don't keep the batter honest. Move their eyes, move their feet a little. Hopefully his approach rubs off on more of our starters. Good article!
    1. BigTrane's Avatar
      BigTrane -
      No Nibblin' Nolasco?
      I like this guy already.

      Bert will love him.
    1. Marta Shearing's Avatar
      Marta Shearing -
      Quote Originally Posted by Riverbrian View Post
      In my Opinion... Twins Pitchers could throw inside a lot more.

      Throwing inside takes confidence and toughness.

      This speaks well of Nolasco.

      Bringing in Nolasco is a solid step in the right direction.
      Anderson has always seemed incapable of getting through to his pitchers the importance of pitching inside. He has called them out in the media a couple times. They dont seem to get the message.

      The frustrating thing is its not even an intimidation thing. Its just to keep hitters off balance. Make them move their feet. Not allowing hitters to get comfortable. Such a simple concept.
    1. B Richard's Avatar
      B Richard -
      Thanks Parker, I always look forward to hearing from an analytic perspective. I was messing around with Nolasco's Pitch f/x data and found something interesting. Using the time period you do (comparing 2011-July 2012, and after the switch, July 2012-Today), I looked at swinging strike % by pitch, a significant indicator of success.

      By far, Nolasco's pitch that benefited the most from the change is his splitter. Hitters often confuse splitters with fastballs, which is to say that the success of a pitcher's splitter relies on his ability to effectively use/locate his fastball. Here are the numbers:

      Fastball: Swinging Strike % before change- 10.46%.....After- 11.24%
      Frequency Used before change- 31.64%.....After- 22.88%

      Splitter: Swinging Strike % before change- 26.32%.....After- 34.82%
      Frequency Used before change- 11.85%.....After- 12.40%

      Nolasco still throws his splitter with roughly the same frequency, but its effectiveness has spiked. I believe, as you pointed out, that Nolasco has benefited from his shift and improved his control. He doesn't need to rely on his fastball nearly as much, but hitters seem to respect it more, frequently confusing splitters for fastballs. In my opinion, Nolasco has done a better job locating and using his fastball (inside) and hitters have had to respect it. As a result, his splitter has spiked in efficiency. This was my personal take on it, let me know what you think. Thanks again Parker

      (all data comes from Brooks Baseball)
    1. Parker Hageman's Avatar
      Parker Hageman -
      Good stuff, B Richard.
    1. Hosken Bombo Disco's Avatar
      Hosken Bombo Disco -
      Great pitch data. You hear about hitters working the count but almost never about pitchers who work the count, so very refreshing to have this guy (Nolasco) around, and also he seems to approach it as a nine inning game -- "I'm gonna face these hitters three times tonight" instead of the usual what we're used to, "oh crap I'm facing this guy for the third time tonight?"

      Let's get it started!
    1. ashburyjohn's Avatar
      ashburyjohn -
      Quote Originally Posted by Hosken Bombo Disco View Post
      instead of the usual what we're used to, "oh crap I'm facing this guy for the third time tonight?"
      Or the all-too-often, "well, at least I won't have to face any of those guys a third time tonight."
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