Moreso than any of their other coaching brethren, pitching coaches develop rather specific reputations for the influence they exert on their respective clubs. Don Cooper of the Chicago White Sox, for example, is known for teaching his pitchers the cutter. The Mets’ Dan Warthen is known for the slider. Dave Duncan, in his time with Oakland and St. Louis, developed a reputation for his reclamation projects and also teaching the sinker. Ray Searage of the Pittsburgh Pirates now has a well-developed reputation for reclamation projects including A.J. Burnett, J.A. Happ, and Edinson Volquez. Jeff Sullivan noted in Spring Training that Juan Nicasio might be Searage’s lastest success story. After Wednesday night’s game against the Cardinals, the first phase of Nicasio’s transformation is complete.
Finishing off a sweep of the Cardinals which saw Pittsburgh pitchers record 37 strikeouts over three games, Nicasio produced a very good debut, throwing six innings, striking out seven while walking none, and giving up just one run on a solo shot to Jeremy Hazelbaker — one of just two hits allowed. He did it all without recording more than 15 pitches in any one inning. Nicasio has long had a high-octane four-seam fastball and a decent slider that has generated 13% whiff rate while being used 22% of the time — second only to his fastball (69% usage rate), per Brooks Baseball. What he hasn’t done previously, however, is utilize his arsenal to achieve extended success.
In his time with Colorado, Nicasio was a somewhat frustrating pitcher to watch. Tons of talent, but could not quite put it together. Of the 207 pitchers who recorded at least 200 innings from 2012 to 2014, Nicasio’s 5.24 ERA ranked 203rd, his 4.57 FIP ranked 190th and, even when taking into account Coors Field, his FIP- of 112 ranked 176th out of the 207 pitchers. Colorado is no doubt a tough place to pitch, but Nicasio’s middling strikeout rate (17.6%) and mediocre walk rate (8%) did not help matters. He had more starts where he failed to reach five innings (18) than those in which he got outs in seventh inning. In 2014, his strikeout declined and he was demoted to the bullpen. Opting not to pay him in arbitration, the Rockies traded Nicasio to the Los Angeles Dodgers for Noel Cuevas.
After moving to the bullpen, Nicasio scrapped the use of the sinker, which he had been using quite a bit with the Rockies, as well as the changeup, which he never really developed. The result was a motley collection of good and bad: great strikeout numbers (25.5%), terrible walk numbers (12.8%), just one home run, and a .359 BABIP that was second among major-league relievers. His 2.85 FIP was almost a full run lower than his 3.83 ERA, and with an absurd .419 BABIP against in the second half and some platoon outcome struggles, the Dodgers left him off the playoff roster and proceeded not offer him a contract for the 2016 season.
Out of the bullpen, Nicasio’s velocity on the fastball was back up around 95 mph after slipping closer to 92-93 in his last couple years as a starter. In his first start of the season, the velocity stayed up at bullpen levels, and he was very effective using the fastball low in the zone, which Sullivan noted in his piece was a change Nicasio made upon joining the Pirates. Against the Cardinals, he kept the ball mostly away, like in this strikeout of Matt Carpenter to open the game.
Nicasio relied heavily on his fastball and slider against St. Louis, throwing 49 fastball, 29 sliders, and just five changeups among his 83 pitches. His slider might be slightly different from the pitch we have seen in the past. Here is one last year against Paul Goldschmidt.
And here is one from Wednesday night against Stephen Piscotty.
Are they different? Yes and no. Both pitches travel at about the same speed, but the slider dropped more than 2 inches more against St. Louis on average compared to the slider from last year, per Brooks Baseball. Whether this is significant, it’s much too early to tell. The slider generated three swings and misses against the Cardinals, so it’s not clear that this slider is an improvement, although it should be noted that fellow Pirate and Ray Searage project Francisco Liriano has seen the vertical movement in his slider fall in each of the past two seasons.
There are a couple caveats to Nicasio’s performance. The first one is a positive hiding behind an unknown. For a pitcher who has struggled to get deep into games, Nicasio’s efficiency on Wednesday was a positive. Working through six innings on roughly 80 pitches represents a good indication by that measure. He will have to work more against other clubs in the future, and if he gets to 80 pitches a little earlier in the game, he might not be as effective over reliable source of innings. For the moment, this concern is minor.
The principal concern with Nicasio keeping this performance up is his repertoire. While he dabbled with the sinker a few years ago, and he threw a handful of changeups against the Cardinals, he is very much a two-pitch pitcher. The fastball-slider combo has not been a great recipe for survival as a starter. Of baseball’s 429 qualified pitchers over the last five years, 68 of them have thrown at least 25% sliders. Of all qualified pitchers, there have been only 10 seasons in which the pitcher has had a mix of four-seam fastball and slider without a third pitch being thrown at least 10% of the time or multiple other pitches accounting for 20% of pitches.
I should note that Chris Young beat his FIP and produced a 2.4 RA/9 WAR, but that probably also makes it necessary to note that Jackson, Morrow, Eovaldi, Morrow, Pineda, and all three Santana seasons underperformed their respective FIP marks, some by a significant margin. It’s possible to have some success using essentially two pitches, and if you have a fastball like Gerrit Cole, you can have great success. Some of these players who often seemed on the verge of breakouts or who had stuff better than their results, but injuries or perhaps failure to develop more pitches prevented them from further success. Only Santana makes the list more than once.
Juan Nicasio might have a nice, short run of success pitching like he did against the Cardinals, but it is not likely to work long term. If he can develop the changeup and be a three-pitch pitcher like teammate Francisco Liriano, his reclamation might become complete. At the moment, Nicasio is through phase one with Ray Searage, and he can be another of Searage’s success stories if he can move on to phase two.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.