The first time I ever saw Ricky Nolasco pitch live was last March, when I was down in Ft. Myers covering spring training. In his first inning of work, the newly signed righty coughed up a whopping seven runs on six hits as the Mets drilled the ball all over the field.
That was Nolasco's second-to-last spring start -- akin to the third preseason game for an NFL team in terms of maximizing readiness for the season -- but I still put minimal stock into it, as with any exhibition outing. Nonetheless, the drubbing served as a prelude for a disastrous season in which opposing hitters batted .316 and slugged .505 against the righty, both career highs.
Nolasco's struggles in 2014 were magnified by the fact that he was in the first of four years on a free agent contract that was, at the time, the largest in franchise history. A rebound was already going to be imperative to a turnaround for Minnesota's embattled starting corps, and with the fate that has befallen the new holder of the largest ever Twins free agent deal, Nolasco's improvement becomes all the more pivotal.
Now that Ervin Santana has been suspended for 80 games, Nolasco moves up to take his place in the rotation, and will start Wednesday in Detroit. Which early signs should we be looking for as we gauge what to expect from the 32-year-old in his second year as a Twin?
The recipe for strikeouts isn't as simple as "more velocity = more missed bats," but for Nolasco that has been true. His average fastball speed topped out at 91.5 MPH in 2009, the only year in his career that he has averaged more than a strikeout per inning. His lowest readings have come in 2012 (90.0) and 2014 (90.1), and those seasons have featured his two lowest swinging strike rates.
Not only was the fastball velocity down a bit last year, but he also posted the lowest marks for each of his secondary offerings. I'll be curiously watching the radar to see how many of Nolasco's heaters touch 93 or 94 MPH this afternoon, and I'll be especially focused on where the breaking balls register. If his oft-used slider continues to flatten and sag toward the 70s, it won't bode well.
ATTACKING THE KNEES
Nolasco coughed up 22 homers in 27 starts last year, and for anyone who regularly watched him the culprit was obvious: way too many pitches left hanging up in the zone. His ground ball rate reached a career-high 46.6 percent in 2012 but has dropped in each of the last two years. He spoke in spring training about how important it is to him to work in the lower part of the zone and induce grounders, which was a struggle for him at times (he gave up a team-leading five homers in six Grapefruit starts). Can he keep Detroit's powerful lineup from elevating the ball?
Not so much from him, but more so from the players behind him. It'd be nice to see an uptick in strikeouts and grounders, as mentioned above, but realistically Nolasco is a guy who will allow substantial contact, and a fair number of flies and line drives. That puts pressure on the defenders -- particularly those in the outfield -- to make plays and help him out. If his batting average on balls in play is anywhere close to where it was last year (.351) he stands almost no chance of success. We need some signals that an alignment featuring Oswaldo Arcia and Torii Hunter in the corners is going to be less damaging than many fear.
Even after the crushing development that took place just days before the start of the season, I still think there's a realistic chance for the Minnesota rotation to be decent, but the loss of Santana means that a drastic improvement from Nolasco is more of a necessity than a luxury.