Justin Nicolino has been called “an intelligent student of the game.” It’s an accurate description and a big reason the 22-year-old southpaw is one of the top prospects in the Miami Marlins organization. He thrives on more than guile. Nicolino has better stuff than most crafty lefties.
A second-round pick by the Blue Jays, in 2010, Nicolino was acquired by the Marlins in the November 2012 trade that sent over $150 million in salaries to Toronto in exchange for a plethora of young talent. The lefthander was outstanding last year in High-A Jupiter, logging a 2.23 ERA in 18 starts. In nine starts for Double-A Jacksonville his ERA was a learning-curve-influenced 4.96. In 327 professional innings, Nicolino is 24-10, 2.53 with a 7.9 K/9.
Nicolino on his arm slot: “Pitching is a blend of art and science. There are so many factors involved. Mechanically, you need everything in sync, in order to command your fastball and your arm slot.
“My arm slot is high-three-quarters. When I was younger, I was more over the top. My mom instilled in me, from a young age, that there are arm injuries. That kind of scared me, so I tried to throw over the top as much as possible. As I started getting older, I was getting hit more. It was, ‘What the heck?’ I realized my fastball was flat.
“When I got to high school we moved to a high-three-quarters arm slot. I didn’t want to go below that. It only switched that one time. I haven’t tinkered with different arm slots, because I’m really protective of my arm. If I had a broken ankle, I’d still be more worried about my arm.”
On his curveball: “Since I’ve been in pro ball [the shape] has probably changed three or four times. It’s a feel pitch. It’s one of those things where you go out one night and it’s that nasty curveball you can back door or throw in the dirt and have someone chase it. There are days you don’t have a feel for it.
“When I first got to pro ball my curveball was a lot easier to control, because it was bigger and a little bit loopier. Over the years it’s gotten tighter and I’ve learned how to do more with it. I’m still working on consistency. There have been a bunch of times I’ve thought I have it figured out. It’s doing what I want it to do — it’s moving how I want — and I’m giving hitters different looks. Other days I walk onto the mound and wonder if I even know how to throw a curveball.
“When it’s going good, it’s good. It‘s all about my arm slot. Sometimes I release it a little more out in front than I should. Sometimes I cast it a little bit. Sometimes it has more of a slurve look than a curveball look. I need to master the consistency of it.”
On his changeup: “That’s my baby. If I didn’t have my changeup, I don’t know what I’d do. I was very fortunate in high school to have coaches who know a lot about the game, and a lot about different pitches. They instilled in my head that, besides your fastball, a changeup is your best pitch. I took pride in it. Especially being left-handed. Growing up, I saw so many pitchers, like Johan Santana, Cliff Lee, Andy Pettitte. All those great lefties could locate their fastball and had a good changeup. It’s fun to watch hitters try to hit a good changeup. It’s probably my favorite pitch to throw.
“I throw a circle. I like to mess around with grips, but I’ve stuck with a circle for as long as I can remember. I throw both a two- and a four-seamer. I throw a majority of four-seams, but I’ll throw a two-seam changeup that I guess you could say it’s more of a strikeout changeup. It kind of buries into the dirt.
“I’m a firm believer in fastball-changeup combinations. I like to paint a good fastball away, then throw a changeup in the same spot on the same exact plane. I’ve realized if you can do that, you’ll have a lot of success. I’ve learned so much about how to sequence my pitches. I’m learning how to set hitters up and use my changeup off of my fastball.”
On his fastball: “I would rate my fastball as being good enough. If I can command it to both sides of the plate, I’m more than happy with it. How my two-seam is moving on a given day has an impact. If it’s coming out of my hand good and moving… on some days my four-seam is moving more than my two-seam.
“My four-seam actually moves a lot like a two-seam. It’s got some late life to it and just kind of takes off. Some days I don’t understand how it’s doing that. Some days it’s better than my two-seam. If that’s the case, I’ll just bang my two-seam for the day and work off my four-seam.
“I kind of approach a lefty the same way I would a righty. I’ll stick a fastball in there. I’ll start a two-seam at a righty’s hip and let it run in over the plate, or I’ll throw a two-seam down the middle to a lefty and let it run in on his hands. One thing I don’t want to do is get into a routine of how I pitch to righties and lefties.”
On pitchability and preparation: “I was fortunate to grow up in Orlando, with spring training being right there. Around ’96-’97, when I started understanding baseball and playing, I’d watch Greg Maddux. I’d watch Tom Glavine. Watching Glavine is kind of how I got my changeup, because he had a good one.
“Those guys didn’t try to do too much. They’d establish their fastballs and work off that. I try to take the same approach. I want to see what each hitter is trying to do. Is he jumping at balls? Is he cheating curveballs? What is he doing to try to get some sort of advantage? If you have access to video or scouting reports, you look for those same things. I feel the more knowledge I have on a hitter, the better chance I have to get him out.
“Just how much will I use? I honestly can’t answer that, because I’ve never really been able to watch video on all the hitters I’m going to face the next day. What I’ve been able to do is sit down with my catcher and go over what he sees. There‘s a lot of value in that. He probably sees even more than I do, because he’s right behind the dish. If you and your catcher are on the same page and have a good feel for each other — he knows your game and you know how he thinks — that’s good enough for me.”
On learning from teammate Andrew Heaney: “We’re a little different. He’s got a lower arm angle and a slider instead of a curveball. He also went to college and learned how to pitch there. It’s good to watch how he approaches hitters, and how they approach him, with him being a left-hander. It gives me an idea of how those hitters might approach me.
“Watching him pitch this year was fun. He’s got unbelievable stuff. He’s also a really good dude, a really easy person to talk to. We’d sit in the dugout together and talk about what we did in a certain situation, and why we did it. Maybe one of us shook off a pitch and gave up a hit. It’s helpful to talk to another lefty about things like that.”
On having mixed results in Double-A: “In my eyes it was like a roller coaster. I had some struggles and I had some really good times. The struggles made me appreciate the game of pitching, and the game of baseball, even more.
“I left [High-A] Jupiter on a high note and my first start in Double-A wasn’t what I expected. That’s when you have to go back and kind of visualize a game. You have to look at what you did and what you could have done differently. I have no regrets about the bad games, because without failing, what are you really learning?
“In my first start in Double-A, I got the first guy out on two pitches. The next three guys were double, single, home run. All three pitches were up. I’m a firm believer in the closer you are to the bottom of the strike zone, the better off you’ll be. I’m all about ground balls and getting outs on as few pitches as possible.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.