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Entries in Ricky Nolasco (2)

Tuesday
Dec172013

Phil Hughes Getting Lit Up in 2-Strike Counts

The Minnesota Twins' starting rotation has failed to put hitters away for years now. In 2013, Twinkies starters had the lowest strikeout rate (12.3 percent of batters faced) and allowed the highest two-strike slugging percentage (.355) in the majors. Minnesota signed Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes for a combined $73 million to add some Ks to a chronically underpowered staff, but the latter hurler might actually make the club's problem in finishing off opposing batters worse.

Hitters are typically toast by the time they get down to their last strike, slugging just .274 in such situations during the 2013 season. Not against Hughes, though. The erstwhile Yankee prodigy served up 10 home runs in two-strike counts (tied for seventh-most among starting pitchers) and surrendered a .399 slugging percentage. Among pitchers making at least 20 starts last year, only Roberto Hernandez (.405) and Joe Sauders (.404) let hitters do more two-strike damage. The two names directly following Hughes look depressingly familiar to Twins fans: Scott Diamond and Kevin Correia (both at .394).

Why has Hughes, a former top-five prospect who barely has a better career park-and-league-adjusted ERA (five percent below average) than the undrafted Diamond (eight percent below), been so hittable in two-strike counts? The 27-year-old tries to overpower batters, elevating his fastball and nearly scrapping his curveball in favor of a speedier slider. Unfortunately, hitters are making loud, frequent contact against Hughes' supposed put-away pitches.

In two-strike situations, Hughes relies almost exclusively on his fastball (thrown 51 percent of the time) and slider (40 percent). He goes for the kill with the fastball, throwing it harder with two strikes (92.7 MPH) than in other counts (92.2 MPH) and peppering the upper third of the strike zone. Hughes threw 56 percent of his two-strike fastballs high in the zone last year, far above than the 42.5 percent average for MLB starters. Pitchers tend to miss bats with elevated two-strike heaters, but Hughes allowed scads of contact.

Hughes' fastball contact rate in 2-strike counts, 2013 

 

       Average fastball contact rate in 2-strike counts, 2013 

 

Hitters came up empty a mere 13.9 percent of the time that they swung against a high Hughes fastball, compared to the 22 percent average for starters. Correia (14 percent) actually got as many whiffs when he climbed the ladder. It's probably not a good sign when your fastball can be described as Correia-esque.

Hughes' slider also suffers from a lack of swings and misses with two-strikes (27.1 percent, below the 30 percent average), largely because hitters don't chase the pitch outside of the strike zone. Check out opponents' swing rate on two-strike sliders thrown off the plate against Hughes, and then the MLB average.

Hitters' swing rate by pitch location vs. Hughes' two-strike sliders, 2013

 

MLB average swing rate by pitch location vs. two-strike sliders, 2013

 

Overall, hitters chased two-strike sliders out of the strike zone 43.5 percent of the time. But against Hughes? Just 35.6 percent. That's below both Mike Pelfrey (36.6 percent) and Correia (38.8 percent).

As the game's most fly ball-centric pitcher, Hughes will undoubtedly benefit in moving from Yankee Stadium (which has boosted home runs by 19 percent compared to a neutral park over the past three years, per The Bill James Handbook) to Target Field (which has suppressed homers by nine percent). But when it comes to burying hitters, he has far too much in common with his new teammates.

Thursday
Dec052013

Improved Slider Paves Way for Nolasco's Payday

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.