Just how far will Ricky Nolasco bounce back this season?
We're now six weeks into spring training, with under two weeks to go until Opening Day, so by this stage of draft season, there has already been much discussion about Ricky Nolasco's completely misleading 5.06 ERA of last season. But if you've only woken up from your winter hibernation this morning, here's a recap:
• He had a .336 batting average on balls in play, third-highest in the majors among qualified starters, 25 points higher than his career number in the category and 52 points higher than he had during his breakout 2008.
• He had a 61.0 percent strand rate, lowest in the majors by more than 5 percent, which was in stark contrast to his 75.7 percent mark in 2008.
• He had a 4.43-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, fifth-best in the majors, yet was the only pitcher with a ratio greater than four who had an ERA higher than 3.45.
• His FIP (Fielder Independent Pitching), per FanGraphs, was 3.35 last season, which was actually lower than his 3.77 mark of 2008.
Sum those up and it's clear Nolasco was a more talented pitcher than his numbers illustrated over the full course of 2009, best demonstrated by his 11-4 record, 3.82 ERA, 1.08 WHIP and 10.06 strikeouts-per-nine innings ratio in his final 22 starts following a brief tuneup in the minors around Memorial Day. Those were comparable with his full-season 2008 numbers, if not better.
Sure enough, fantasy owners have already noticed, and drafted accordingly. He has an average draft position of 91.5 overall thus far, 19th among starting pitchers, despite the fact that on last year's Player Rater he ranked 167th overall, and 46th among starting pitchers. That's quite a leap of faith.
But is it right to put that much faith in a bounce-back season?
In a word, yes.
Investing in last year's wins and ERA numbers isn't a winning draft strategy when it comes to pitching; it's the peripheral statistics that tend to paint a more accurate picture of a pitcher's true potential. So when you're considering Nolasco this year, instead of narrowing your focus to his 13 wins and 5.06 ERA, take a look at his 9.49 K-per-nine ratio (ninth-best in the majors), and 2.14 walks-per-nine (17th-best), not to mention all the statistics cited above. That 3.35 FIP of Nolasco's, incidentally, ranked him 15th among qualified starters, so clearly he was a top-20 starting pitcher last season going by almost any peripheral number.
From a historical standpoint, it's immensely difficult to manage command ratios like Nolasco's yet post such an inflated ERA. Since 1901, only 38 pitchers have tossed at least 162 innings in a season while also averaging at least nine strikeouts per nine innings and four per walk allowed. Those pitchers averaged a 2.61 ERA, 1.01 WHIP and 231 K's (scaled to a 200-inning season), and not one besides Nolasco had an ERA higher than 3.45, a WHIP higher than 1.18 or fewer than 191 K's.
In other words, Nolasco's true value almost assuredly resides in the mid-threes in ERA and near 1.10 in WHIP, if not better, with averages of approximately a strikeout per inning and four K's per walk. Our projections of a 3.96 ERA and 1.21 WHIP might not even give him due credit for talent, though the 15 wins and 203 K's certainly do. And that hardly hints at the height of his statistical ceiling.
Another way of putting this: What if Nolasco, not Josh Johnson, winds up the better fantasy pitcher on the Florida Marlins' staff in 2010? The masses might disagree with that opinion, being that Johnson was the one who placed 11th among all starting pitchers on the 2009 Player Rater, not to mention that he's 72nd overall in terms of his ADP (74.6) and 16th at his position. All of those numbers outpace Nolasco's.
But here are some surprising comparisons between their 2009 stats:
Johnson had the better numbers in wins (15-13), ERA (3.23-5.06), home runs allowed per nine innings (0.60-1.12), batting average allowed (.238-.265), innings per start (6.33-5.97), quality starts (23-16) and FIP (3.06-3.35).
Nolasco, however, had the better numbers in K's per nine (9.49-8.22), walks per nine (2.14-2.50), K's per walk (4.43-3.29) and expected FIP (3.28-3.40). He also topped Johnson in almost every statistical category from June 1 forward, with the exception of ERA, where Johnson's 3.54 led Nolasco's 3.82.
Does that mean fantasy owners should select Nolasco first of the two? Not at all, considering that both pitchers have top-20 fantasy potential at their position, and might very well take their battle for the honor of "top Marlins starter" down to the regular season's final pitch. But if you're talking ADPs, Nolasco's average two rounds lower makes him at least as attractive a selection, as he's comparable in talent.
Nolasco's top-100 ADP might seem generous, but it's entirely warranted. In fact, he should be due an extreme shift of his luck to the good side -- after having dealt with luck as extremely bad as his was in 2009!
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.