In an era where punch outs are more common than ever, Justin Nicolino is an anomaly. Of the 328 pitchers who threw 50-or-more innings last year, 327 had a higher strikeout rate than the 24-year-old left-hander. In his rookie season for the Miami Marlins, Nicolino fanned just 23 batters in 74 innings.
Despite the dearth of Ks, Nicolino enjoyed a modicum of success. He won five of his nine decisions, and his 4.01 ERA was certainly respectable. In seven of his 12 starts he allowed two or fewer runs.
Nicolino knows that he probably has to K more than 2.8 batters per nine innings in order to remain in a big league rotation. That doesn’t mean he has to become Steve Carlton. In 1976, Randy Jones had a 2.7 K/9 and won the National League Cy Young award. Five years earlier, Dave McNally went 21-9, 2.89 while posting a 3.7 K/9. Jamie Moyer, yet another crafty lefty, was at 5.4 for his career.
Acquired by Miami from Toronto in the November 2012 deal that saw a dozen players change addresses, Nicolino has prospered without punch outs. Two years ago he dominated Double-A with a 4.3 K/9, and prior to this summer’s call-up that number was 4.9 in Triple-A.
Nicolino is no mush-baller. His fastball averaged 87.8 mph last year, and topped out at 94. He has a decent cutter and a plus changeup. But while he induces a lot of soft contact, he simply doesn’t miss many bats.
“If I could explain to you why I don’t get more strikeouts, I would,” Nicolino told me on Thursday. “I’d like to know the answer myself. Maybe it’s a matter of making some minor adjustments, and that will come with getting older. I realize I can’t always rely entirely on weak contact to get outs. I need to figure out how to miss more barrels.”
On June 20, Nicolino had the most memorable barrel-miss of his life. It came in the third inning of his major-league debut, in Cincinnati.
“It was Joey Votto,” said Nicolino. “I’m very proud of that, because that guy doesn’t strike out. Ever. Hopefully, I’ll have a long career and get a lot more, but to have my first one be against Joey Votto is pretty cool.”
Two innings earlier, Nicolino had walked the patient slugger on a full-count pitch.
“Second at bat, we stuck with our game plan of pounding him away,” recalled Nicolino. “He took it, took it, swung at a couple. I went fastball in, trying to catch him off guard — I jammed him a little — and he fought it off. Then I threw a 3-2 cutter that was supposed to be down-and-away, and it ended up being up-and-in. It kind of backed up on me, but it was under his hands and he swung through it.”
In other words, his first big-league strikeout came on a mistake pitch.
“It kind of was,” admitted Nicolino. “A well-placed mistake.”
Rangers pitchers had the second-lowest strikeout rate in MLB last year. Only the
Twins (6.52) fanned fewer opposing batters per nine innings than did Texas (6.83).
Expect more Ks in 2016.
The Rangers will have Yu Darvish (11.2 over his career) back, and Cole Hamels (9.11) will be around for the full season. Ditto Jake Diekman (10.65) who likewise came over in the trade deadline deal with Philadelphia.
And, of course, there is Keone Kela. The flame-throwing youngster led the club with a 10.4 strikeout rate last year. Earlier this week, I asked Josh Boyd, the Rangers’ senior director of player personnel, for an assessment of the 22-year-old closer-in-waiting.
“Keone is overpowering, with multiple out pitches,” said Boyd. “His competitiveness on the mound might overshadow the intensity of his focus in crucial spots late in a game. It’s uncommon and impressive. He’s powerful and aggressive, and pounds the zone. As a rookie, making the jump from Double-A, never having thrown more than 50 innings in a season, he managed to get even stronger in the second half.”
In 2012, Wilin Rosario hit 28 home runs in 396 at bats for the Colorado Rockies in his rookie season. The following year, he hit 21 in 449 at bats, and upped his batting average by more than 20 points. From an offensive standpoint, he looked like a star in the making.
His career has since plummeted. This past week, Rosario reportedly signed with the Hanwha Eagles of the Korea Baseball Organization.
Rosario is catcher, but he’s never been a good catcher. Frankly, he’s been poor one, and that proved to be his undoing. His defensive deficiencies were too pronounced for him to keep his job.
According to an observer who saw a lot of Rosario early in his career, it wasn’t for lack of raw talent.
“From a tool-set standpoint, he was tremendously athletic,” said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “He could throw, he was strong, he had mobility. He had everything you need to be an upper-echelon catcher in the big leagues. In all likelihood, he didn’t work hard enough at his craft.”
Which player would the Braves be better off having through the 2020 season (when Andrelton Simmons’ contract is up) — Simmons or Dansby Swanson? We won’t know the answer to that question for at least a few more years, but we do know Simmons won’t be in Atlanta; he’ll be playing shortstop in Anaheim.
Not so long ago, Billy Eppler, the Angels new GM, was picturing him in pinstripes.
“We were looking for candidates to potentially replace Derek Jeter,” explained Eppler, who previously worked in New York’s front office. “Simmons was on the candidate list, as were other people. We weren’t able to execute a transaction there, but my interest carried over to here, and an opportunity presented itself.”
Would the Yankees have made a deal for Simmons, or another starter-quality shortstop, while Jeter was still playing?
“We were keeping our ears open, but we weren’t particularly looking,” claimed Eppler. “Whenever a discussion took place, it was always with the mindset that the newly-acquired player would have to be comfortable playing another spot.”
While a Simmons-to-the-Yankees trade presumably never came close to happening, it’s nonetheless a fascinating scenario to ponder. Would the Yankees have deigned to leave “The Captain” in his longtime position, and played the best defensive shortstop of our era elsewhere?
The Boston bullpen got a lot better this offseason with the acquisitions of Carson Smith and Craig Kimbrel. The latter is an intimidating closer with a 14.5 strikeout rate over six seasons. According to Xander Bogaerts, the former is every bit as intimidating.
“I would probably prefer to face Craig Kimbrel than Carson Smith,” Bogaerts told me. “Carson has this weird thing going on his delivery, which makes hitting against him uncomfortable. His motion makes his ball hard to pick up. Kimbrel throws harder — he’s a nasty pitcher — but Carson throws pretty hard, also.”
Brett Cecil threw his curveball 39.8% of the time last season, the highest percentage of any pitcher with at least 50 innings. And for good reason. His 57.5% swing-strike rate on the pitch was the best in the game.
This past summer, I asked the Blue Jays left-hander how he turned his signature pitch into one of baseball’s most overpowering offerings.
“A weighted ball program helped me increase my arm strength and spin it better,” said Cecil. “Instead of 77 to 80 (mph), I was able to throw it 83 to 87.”
Greg Holland was an elite closer before he blew out his elbow. In 309 relief outings for the Royals, he fashioned a 2.23 FIP and fanned 12.1 batters per nine innings. Kansas City non-tendered Holland in early December, a few weeks after he celebrated his 30th birthday, and two months after he had Tommy John surgery.
There is no guarantee that Holland will return to his old form, and even if he does, it won’t happen in the coming season. While he could conceivably come back next fall, it’s more likely that he’ll throw his next big-league pitch in April 2017.
That doesn’t mean it wouldn’t behoove a team to take a shot on the rehabbing righty. Close to 80 percent of pitchers who undergo ligament-replacement surgery make it back to the big leagues, and many thrive upon doing so. Given the value of late-inning power arms — assuming a willingness a wait — Holland might be one of the best bargains out there.
Burke Badenhop is among those still waiting for a contract offer. The 32-year-old reliever spent last season in Cincinnati, where he appeared in 68 games. It was subpar year for the sinkerball specialist. His 46.7% ground-ball rate was the lowest of his career, and his 3.93 ERA was his highest in five years.
Badenhop expects to be back to his worm-killing ways in 2016, which would make him a good fit for the Pirates —a team that places a high value on ground ball outs.
Pittsburgh didn’t come up as a possible destination when I spoke to him recently, but Badenhop did opine on one of the club’s bullpen arms.
“Tony Watson is unbelievable,” Badenhop told me. “He goes out there and just crushes it, yet he gets no pub. None. If he was a closer, he’d be an all-star and everybody would know who he is. You could argue that Tony Watson has been just as good, if not better, than Mark Melancon. His numbers are ridiculous. I mean, they’re absurd.”
Two off-the-field transactions you might have missed:
Tyrone Brooks, who served as the team’s director of player personnel, has left the Pirates to join the Commissioner’s office. According to the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, Brooks will act as “senior director overseeing the league’s front office and field staff diversity pipeline program.”
Jeff Lantz, who was named director of communications for Minor League Baseball in November 2104, was recently promoted to Senior Director, Communications. Lantz spent seven years with the Orioles before joining MiLB.
Terry Forster was an effective reliever from 1971-1986. Playing for five teams, he appeared in 614 games and was credited with 127 saves. He could also hit. In 86 career plate appearances, Forster slashed .397/.413/.474.
His 1972 season — his second in the big leagues — was impressive on both sides of the ball. Pitching for the White Sox as a 20-year-old, the southpaw logged 100 innings over 62 games with a 9.4 K/9 and a 1.73 FIP. At the plate, he went 10-for-19.
On September 28, 1925, Jess Doyle came out of the Tigers bullpen and allowed one run in three-and-two-third innings. He was charged with the loss, but homered twice.
On July 19, 1955, Babe Birrer came out of the Tigers bullpen and earned a save with four scoreless innings against the Orioles. Along the way, he hit a pair of three-run homers.
On June 16, 1957, Dixie Howell came out of the White Sox bullpen and earned the win with three-and-two-third scoreless innings against the Senators. Like Doyle and Birrer before him, he went deep twice.
In 1958, Jack Harshman of the White Sox had a pair of two-homer games as a starting pitcher. The southpaw had 76 hits in his career, and 21 of them were home runs.
One other Harshman note: On August 13, 1954, he threw a 16-inning shutout against the Tigers, with Minnie Minoso driving in the game’s lone run. Harshman went hitless in six trips that day.
As Steve Dilbeck wrote in the LA Times, Andre Ethier will earn his 10-5 rights — 10 years of major league service, the last five with the same team — on April 21. At that point, the Dodgers outfielder would be able to veto a trade.
For that reason, expect Ethier to change addresses between now and opening day. His salary — $35.5 million for the next two seasons — will deter some teams (hello Cleveland), but the crosstown Angels might be willing to incur the coast. Craig Gentry and Daniel Nava are the current options in left field, and while he’s past his prime, Ethier would be an upgrade on either.
Not all outfielders are Yoenis Cespedes when it comes to gunning down runners on the base paths. There have been plenty of noodle arms throughout baseball history, and some good one-liners to describe them.
In 1950, Harold Kaese of The Sporting News wrote the following about Sam Jethroe, who was in camp with the Boston Braves:
“This Jethroe looks so fast and his arm looks so weak that it’s even money he can carry the ball in from center field as fast as he can throw it in.”
Jethroe, a 33-year-old rookie at the time, went on to lead the National League with 35 steals that year. Nicknamed “Jet,” he was the first African-American player in Boston baseball history.
RANDOM FACTS AND STATS
Over the past two seasons, Yoenis Cespedes is hitting .276/.315/.497 with 57 home runs. Over the past two seasons, JD Martinez is hitting .296/.350/.543 with 61 home runs.
Hall of Fame outfielder Wee Willie Keeler struck out 136 times in 9,610 career plate appearances.
As August Fagerstrom Tweeted earlier in the week, 57% of Mark Buehrle’s strikeouts last season were of the called variety. No other qualified pitcher was higher than 41%. The highest percentage of swinging strikeouts belonged to Danny Salazar, 91%.
Per NPR, Detroit is the only city never to lose a professional team in any of the four major sports.
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.