SleepersMay 25, 2009

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Sleeper Watch

By R.J. White

After yet another terrible line on May 22 (2 IP, 8 ER), Ricky Nolasco was optioned to Triple-A by the Marlins. As would be suspected, he’s also been released in many fantasy leagues. Not many people want to hang on to an optioned pitcher in the first place, especially one that has thrown up a 9.07 ERA in nine games. So why does he appear in this space this week? Well, despite what a cursory glance at the numbers might tell you, Nolasco actually isn’t all that bad. Ray Flores put forth his opinion in Sunday’s Hot/Cold column that people should buy Nolasco while his price is at rock bottom, and I agree wholeheartedly.

Last year, Nolasco dazzled owners with 15 wins, a 3.52 ERA and a 1.10 WHIP. These stellar numbers were supported by a good K/9 rate of 7.88 and elite control, as Nolasco walked fewer than two batters per nine innings. A strand rate of 75% and a BABIP of .284 also added credibility to Nolasco’s breakthrough year.

So what has changed so much this year? It’s not the strikeouts, as his current 7.63 K/9 rate almost matches last year’s pace. His walk rate has jumped nearly a full point, but the 2.68 BB/9 ratio still gives Nolasco a great K/BB ratio of 2.85. Based on these numbers alone, Nolasco should probably have an ERA in the high 3s or low 4s. So how in the world did Nolasco get saddled with a 9-plus ERA? Three metrics jump out at us: line-drive percentage, strand rate, and BABIP.

After a full year of posting a line-drive percentage of under 19%, Nolasco has seen 26.3% of batted balls become line drives in 2009. Considering most pitchers hover around the 20% mark, this sky-high mark has likely resulted more from bad luck than from a loss of talent. Last year, only one player in the league had as bad a line-drive percentage (100 innings minimum), and that was Kyle Kendrick, a player with terrible K/9 numbers and a K/BB ratio barely over 1.0.

Next comes the strand rate. Nolasco has stranded less than 50% of runners on base this season, a completely unfathomable number. In 2008, two players managed to strand less than 60% of runners on base (100 innings minimum), Boof Bonser (57.9) and Andrew Miller (59.9). It’s quite possible that Nolasco is having trouble pitching from the stretch, and the demotion to Triple-A should give him ample time to work on that phase of his game. With his 49.4% strand rate being such a large outlier, any improvement at all in his mechanics will likely bring that sub-50% rate way back to the pack.

Lastly, we have BABIP. History shows that pitchers don’t have too much control over this number tracking average on balls in play. Pitchers that play in front of better defenses should have slightly better numbers in the long run, but in general, balls in play usually fall for hits around 30% of the time. Nolasco’s BABIP this season is .402, meaning that these balls in play are becoming hits 40% of the time. Again, last year’s worst mark among pitchers that threw 100 innings or more was Kevin Millwood’s .366. Combine this metric, which is based largely on luck, with the two metrics above, and it’s clear that Nolasco has been exceptionally unlucky.

Sending Nolasco to the minors was probably the right move. He can go to New Orleans, work on the few mechanical issues he might have, and regain his confidence pitching to minor-league hitters. Expect to see him back in Florida within a month. Anyone in a league that has bench slots would be well-served to use one on Nolasco, as he proved last year he can be a game-changer for fantasy teams when everything is clicking.

R.J. White (or daullaz) has been actively involved in fantasy sports for over 14 years, making him an addict at this point. He loves writing, the Atlanta Braves, music, the Buffalo Bills, theatre, the Philadelphia Eagles, his family, and the number 42, though not in that order.
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