Ricky Nolasco grabbed headlines last week by signing the largest free agent contract in Minnesota Twins history -- a deal that will reportedly dish out $49 million over four years to the 30-year-old right handed starter, with the potential for five years should the two sides agree to pick up the veteran's fifth-year vesting option. Running away with major leauge-worst staff marks in ERA (5.24) and WHIP (1.54) in Minnesota, the addition of Nolasco should make the eight-year veteran Ron Gardenhire's staff ace alongside recent addition Phil Hughes.
Posting a 3.70 ERA, 1.21 WHIP and 101 ERA+ over 199.1 combined innings between Miami and Los Angeles last season, one could argue that the Twins severely overpayed for Nolasco considering the amount of quality starters remaining on the market (i.e. Ervin Santana, Matt Garza, Hiroki Kuroda). But last season offered plenty of optimism for Nolasco, whose 2013 ERA and WHIP were considerably lower than his 2012 marks (4.48 and 1.37, respectfully). A big reason for those decreases were his improvements in slider location -- specifically in two-strike counts.
Nolasco slider pitch frequency in two-strike counts, 2012
Nolasco slider pitch frequency in two-strike counts, 2013
Nolasco went to his slider 32% of the time in two-strike counts (slightly above his fastball at 31.9%) in 2012 and held opponents to a .212 batting average and .310 slugging percentage in 2012, each of which were higher than league average (.157 and .247, respectively). His command was spotty -- as suggested by the first image and evidenced by a walk rate of 5.7% (slightly higher than the 5.5% league mark) and 4.0% called-strike rate (sixth-lowest among qualified starters). The pitch wasn't particularly temping for opponents to offer at, either, generating a 41.6% chase rate (below the 43.6% league average) and 28% miss rate (compared to the 30.3% league average).
Fast forward to 2013, and the results were much different. Nolasco threw his slider at a 38.1% clip in two-strike counts, which was clearly his go-to offering in these situations (ahead of his fastball, which he threw 34.5% of the time). Consequently, opponents' average in two-strike counts fell to .140, while their slugging percentage dropped to .213 -- the latter nearly .100 points lower than in the previous season.
But throwing a pitch more frequently doesn't guarantee success, as we all know. Improved command is also required, and Nolasco accomplished exactly that. His two-strike walk rate with the pitch descended to 2.7%, which was fourth-lowest among qualified starters last season and his called strike rate nearly doubled, finishing at 7.3%. Batters were more willing to expand the zone against it, too, posting a 47.7% chase rate (compared to 41.6% in 2012) and miss rate of 37.7%, which actually beat out Matt Harvey (36.9%) and Clayton Kershaw (33.7%).
Nolasco made great strides last season, especially when we take into account his 2012 campaign with Miami. An improved feel for his slider with two strikes was one big reason why.