Juan Nicasio: Ray Searage’s Newest Success?

In a spring-training game on Wednesday afternoon, Juan Nicasio struck out 10 Orioles. In fairness, everybody who pitched in the game for the Pirates struck out 10 Orioles, and I just struck out 10 Orioles while I was writing this sentence, but Nicasio is opening some eyes after what was a pretty quiet arrival in Pittsburgh. When he was brought in, the thought was he’d serve as a possible long reliever. Now there’s even talk about him starting.

It’s the middle of March, and Nicasio has racked up exactly zero regular-season innings, so it’s not like we know how this is going to play out. Pitchers open eyes in spring training all the time before coming apart when the games start to mean something. Nicasio, however, clearly has the stuff, and the narrative is building. After Wednesday, there’s a distinct feeling that Juan Nicasio is the Pirates’ latest pitching success story.

It’s not like Nicasio had to be rebuilt or anything. He was perfectly serviceable in 2015, with a mid-90s fastball and a sharp-breaking slider. He adjusted well to relief work, and that adjustment, and the power heater, attracted the Pirates to Nicasio in the first place. But last year, there was a problem, which the Dodgers worked hard to keep hidden. Two-thirds of the batters Nicasio got to face were right-handed, which worked out, because against lefties, Nicasio had more walks than strikeouts. Lefties reached to the clip of a .477 OBP.

Nicasio isn’t that bad against lefties, but he’s been in need of work. The Pirates know that. And when you talk about pitchers joining the Pirates, you’re looking for little adjustments. What have Ray Searage and the crew been up to with Nicasio? If you listen to them, it hasn’t been complicated. Again, there’s been no overhaul. From Dan Zangrilli:

“We made a minor adjustment with him, and ‘boom’ he was able to get the fastball down in the zone,” Searage said.

And from a Jayson Stark column:

In Nicasio’s case, Searage hasn’t had to make any dramatic mechanical changes.

There’s been perhaps a subtle tweak or two, but as Nicasio’s delivery goes, it’s not easy to see any differences between 2015 and 2016. The motion is more or less the same, and if Searage is right, Nicasio is now slightly more able to keep his fastball around the bottom third. But what about anything else? This is where we run into one problem: The Pirates play their spring-training games in Florida, where there isn’t PITCHf/x. So there’s nothing here that’s easily searchable, which left me having to do some video scouting. So I watched all of Nicasio’s pitches to lefties from the last two appearances. There were, thankfully, only 36 of them.

First, here’s where Nicasio has thrown his fastballs to lefties. This is from Brooks Baseball, and from the catcher’s perspective, and it covers Nicasio’s career. (The pattern wasn’t any different in 2015.)


Away, away, away — almost everything away. Nicasio has kept his fastball around the outer edge, which isn’t terribly uncommon. One issue is it can be terribly predictable. Okay, so, historically, Nicasio has thrown about 75 – 80% fastballs to lefties. In these last two appearances, he’s thrown 78% fastballs to lefties. He’s not unleashing some brand-new changeup. He has a changeup, but it’s not great. Nicasio remains fastball-first against opposite-handed bats, but now think about the image above, and then consider some of these sample fastball targets:





There were more — I just didn’t want to embed them all. These are examples, of the catcher giving Nicasio an inside-fastball target. This is a target he hasn’t often been shown, and it fits well with what we understand about the Pirates and their philosophies. The Pirates definitely don’t take a one-size-fits-all approach to pitcher development, but they, perhaps more than any other team, appreciate the effectiveness of throwing hitters inside, and it would appear that this is part of the plan for Nicasio. The Pirates know he has a good fastball. They know he has a good slider, and they know he doesn’t really have much of a good change. They’d like for the change to improve, but as long as he’s mostly fastball/slider, he might as well at least mix up location. If Nicasio can establish the inner part, then hitters will have to respect that, and it could effectively give Nicasio an additional pitch. A fastball is a fastball, I suppose, but an inside fastball is a different weapon from an outside fastball, and if you can pitch to both sides you can spend more of your time in control.

And speaking of control, it’s not like Nicasio is particularly wild. His approach with lefties just hasn’t given him much wiggle room, because they’ve been able to look for fastballs in one spot. It stands to reason working inside more could keep them more on the defensive. I don’t know if it means Nicasio will be great against lefties, but this seems like it should certainly help.

Whether Nicasio will start or relieve, I’m not sure. I’m guessing the latter, although it’s nice to have options. And again, because the season hasn’t actually started, I can’t promise that Nicasio will be as effective as the Pirates would like, but he’s been one of their projects, and it seems he hasn’t needed that much work. Some tweak might’ve been made to his delivery, but the Pirates are also trying to open up that glove-side part of the plate. It’s not revolutionary. There’s a reason for that.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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7 years ago

Jeff, I’m I correct in saying that since Nicasio only has 4 years of service the Pirates can offer him Arbitration after this year too??

If true that means they could have two years of a decent starter for around $8M