Player Profile: Ricky Nolasco and sticking to your guns

Pirates-Marlins

Sometimes it can be very difficult to stick to your guns when every instinct and every bone in your body tells you otherwise. Such was Ricky Nolasco throughout the 2009 season. Fortunately, reasoning and better judgment usually wins out over lesser methods. Unfortunately, last year your gut was right—you should have cut Nolasco last year.

Now, that doesn’t mean that owners who kept Nolasco made the wrong decision. After all, he did have a very high BABIP (.336) and a shockingly low stranded runner rate (61.0 percent). Nine times out of 10, Nolasco shakes off the curse and delivers outstanding numbers in line with his peripherals. Unfortunately, probability states that there is a one in 10 chance of the other scenario occurring—and it did.

But that doesn’t mean that owners should shy away from Nolasco for 2010. In fact, he may be one of the best buy-low candidates in the league. There are likely to be a large contingent of owners who are scared off by his 5.06 ERA, driving his draft stock down. Ever the vigilant analyst, ESPN’s Tristan Cockroft recently released his preliminary 2010 rankings. In the list, Nolasco was able to reach 88th overall, just below Clayton Kershaw (82) and Tommy Hanson (86), with Cole Hamels (93) occupying the next pitcher on the rung.

These lofty projections for Nolasco are somewhat surprising, as it is not often that a pitcher with a 5.00+ ERA is able to maintain any semblance of fantasy value the next season, let alone the top 100. However, this could be indicative of changing moods toward advanced statistical analysis among fantasy baseball junkies. Ever the industry standard for fantasy rankings, ESPN analysts tend to have a good sense of their consumers’ opinions—and what they don’t have a sense of, they can influence with positive support.

Take Nolasco for example. A couple of years ago, he likely would have ranked considerably lower on the list, despite his excellent peripherals. However, in 2009, the loudest voices among the fantasy baseball community seem to be echoing this increased emphasis on sabermetrics, which will undoubtedly cause the rest of the fantasy world to follow suit. In practice, this means that if Cockroft says Nolasco should go 88, he probably will due to the power of suggestion. I like to call this the Eric Karabell Effect, though Cockroft deserves just as much notice in that regard.

Therefore, if you are looking to get a big steal on Nolasco, this may not be the year to do it—that is, he won’t be going in round 15 like he may have a number of years ago when he would have been one of the best picks in the draft. If he is, in fact, destined to go at the 88th pick, he will still outperform his draft slot. However, don’t reach on him too many rounds above that 88th slot, or he may not even be a value pick.

Disregarding his loftier-than-expected draft slot, there are many reasons to be optimistic about Nolasco for 2010. Despite his struggles in 2009, he has the profile of one of the better, more underrated starting options in fantasy baseball. For traditional 5×5 roto leagues, Nolasco’s peripherals cast him in as a Roy Halladay-light type of player—substituting control for added strikeouts.

Aside from the obvious difference that Halladay throws more innings and has a superior groundball rate, the two pitchers are quite similar for our guts-and-bones applications of fantasy baseball. In addition, the two could have been very similar in overall value had Nolasco been able to register a lower BABIP and ERA.

Both have exceptional control: Halladay had a 1.32 BB/9 in 2009 with a 2.00 career rate, while Nolasco had a 2.14 BB/9 in ’09 with a 2.19 BB/9 in his career. Halladay had a 7.54 K/9 in ’08 with a 7.83 K/9 in ’09; Nolasco had a 7.88 K/9 in 2008 and a 9.49 K/9 in ’09. Though there may be a discrepancy in the 2009 strikeout rates between the two pitchers, it is worth noting that Nolasco’s regressed strikeout rates, based on his plate discipline indicators, are much closer to the high-7s to mid-8s strikeouts per nine, instead of 9.5 K/9, which are more similar to Halladay’s numbers.

Nolasco’s plate discipline indicators are also very encouraging for his 2010 outlook. He induces a good share of swings outside the zone, at 29.3 percent, while also getting a good, but not great, share of swings and misses with a 78.2 percent contact rating. Though he was able to post a 9.45 K/9 rate in 2009, his contact percentage, coupled with his high BABIP, are the primary reasons why Nolasco is expected to see some regression in his strikeout rate for 2010. He won’t be posting a rate in the 6s any time soon, but a 9+ strikeout rate may be a bit optimistic.

Most importantly, however, is that his ERA is expected to rebound in a big way for 2010. Nolasco registered a 3.35 FIP ERA for 2009, which is much more indicative of his actual level of talent. Normalizing his BABIP to the league average, he could also have registered a WHIP just north of 1.10, which would be among the league’s best.

For 2010, don’t be afraid of taking Nolasco in the first half of the draft. Though an 88th overall ranking may be a bit disappointing for those hoping to sit on the pitcher as a sleeper, he is still a bit undervalued and will make many teams happy. If Cockroft’s rankings are not reflected in most draft rooms and Nolasco drops to the second half of the draft, he has the chance to be one of the best value picks in 2010. In that case, it’s more than OK to reach.

For next season, it is reasonable to expect more of the same out of Nolasco with a low-3s ERA, a sub-1.2 WHIP, and a good and strikeout total. An ERA around 3.2-3.6 and a 1.10-1.20 WHIP seem likely, with a K/9 rate around 8 thrown in for good measure. If he delivers on the promise, Nolasco will be one of the better fantasy pitchers around and he could be a great case study for the applications of advanced statistical analysis in fantasy baseball.

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Comments

  1. Dylan said...

    I think some of the opinion regardin Nolasco ranked higher then expected is from looking at his season splits. I picked him up in June in one of my leagues and he proceded to pitch 141 innings with a 4.14 ERA, 1.08 WHIp and 158 K’s(K9 over 10).

  2. Mike Silver said...

    In terms of fantasy applications I feel that Nolasco and Halladay are quite similar. Sure, the groundball rates are substantially different, but that doesn’t have much of an affect in fantasy unless you’re in a home runs against league.

    I agree that Vazquez is another good comp for Nolasco. However, I wanted to also make the point that Halladay is being projected to go in the top 2 or 3 rounds, and Nolasco is potentially a player of similar value/fantasy profile who will go considerably lower.

    Sure, real life the groundball rate makes a pretty big difference, but not nearly as much in fantasy baseball.

  3. Jeff Lewis said...

    Is there an easy place to find K% (K/batters faced).  I have a feeling that his higher K/9 last year is an indirect effect of his high BABIP.

  4. Alex Zelvin said...

    I totally agree with your basic premise – that Nolasco’s ERA should be ignored, and that he’s likely to have an excellent 2010.  I actually like him a lot more than Kershaw for this season.  Overall, it looks like Cockroft has starting pitchers going relatively early in his rankings, so Nolasco should slip a little lower than indicated in most drafts.

    The one area where I disagree with you is the comparison to Halladay.  When I’m comparing two pitchers, groundball rate is a key part of the difference and really ruins the comparison between these two.  Statistically, I’d say Nolasco is much more of a Javier Vazquez-light…excellent K/9, excellent BB/9, and mediocre groundball rate.

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