Ricky Nolasco is a California native, pitched all but the last dozen starts of his big-league career in Miami and has a surname that sounds like it should triangulate a Manhattan neighborhood. As of Wednesday evening, though, he’s a Minnesota Twin. So, too, is Phil Hughes, another Californian, once the top pitching prospect in baseball and the former future ace of the New York Yankees. Hughes agreed to a three-year, $24-million deal on Saturday, which would be the richest free-agent outlay in team history if not for Nolasco’s deal, which guarantees him more than twice that amount over four years.
That the Twins have never spent this much money before is much bigger news, in most senses, than the fact that they spent it now. Neither of these contracts is exorbitant, or even arresting, outside the context of this team and its history. It’s important not to place undue emphasis on the acquisitions themselves, nor to give credit to the team for finally catching up to the rest of baseball.
That said, these aren’t insignificant moves. In fact, they have major implications for the future of the team, and for the roster itself, even in the near term. Hughes and Nolasco are good pitchers, and the Twins are now fairly deeply invested in them. Since that’s true, let’s take a close look at each pitcher, and then at the bigger team picture of which they are now part.
Ricky Nolasco: Sliding Over, Moving Up
Baseball is a game of adjustments, one in which long careers are available only to those who prove adaptable and proactive. It is also, however, a game played mostly by prideful young men, under the tutelage of older men who pride is long broken, and who now invest their self-worth in the success of their prized proteges. Changing the way one does things on the field, as a concession to age or to the league’s adjustment to them or for any other reason, demands admission of one’s mortality within the game, and not many people want to make that admission. It’s also excruciatingly difficult, in a game predicated on the fractions of inches that separate home runs from pop-ups off the bat and on the full but singular inches that distinguish balls from strikes, to make changes that violate and invalidate the muscle memory one has used to get this far.
Nonetheless, it’s true for any player, and perhaps especially for any pitcher: Adapt or die. Ricky Nolasco had to choose between those options during 2012, as his stuff ran away from him and the game put him on the ropes.
Nolasco once threw consistently in the mid-90s, touching as high as 95 miles per hour. He threw a four-seam fastball, in his prime, and threw it roughly 60 percent of the time. He gave up a fairly large number of home runs, especially given his roomy home park, and he tended to struggle with runners on base, but with a solid heater and a good-to-very good curveball-changeup mix as its accompaniment, he was one of the better strikeouts-and-walks starting pitchers in baseball. At his best, he turned in three straight seasons during which he struck out about a quarter of the batters he faced, and walked about one in 20. His ERAs tended not to reflect the quality saber-leaning fans might have seen in him—his 3.52 ERA in 2008 was the only one south of 4.48 that he’d ever posted, entering 2013—but he did deliver quality innings. While flawed, he had the fundamental skill set of an above-average starting pitcher.
This was all true in a general sense, but by the dog days of summer, 2012, it was losing its validity in a hurry. Nolasco’s average fastball velocity was flirting with 90 miles per hour, down substantially, no longer viable for such a straight fastball. He’d introduced a sinker, and turned his changeup into a more pure splitter (still using it as a change). He’d also gone more and more to a slider, especially against right-handed batters. Still, his stuff was getting flat. Even as leaguewide strikeout rates skyrocketed, Nolasco’s personal one was in freefall. He was whiffing fewer than one in every six opposing batters by mid-August. His ERA stood at 4.90, and this time, there was no chorus of “yeah, but” from the math geeks’ table. Nolasco’s viability as a big-league starter was in jeopardy.
I’m not sure who suggested the change. Perhaps it was something Nolasco toyed with during bullpen sessions, then simply put into practice. Perhaps it was a pitching coach, either responding to his pupil’s desperation or finally wearing him down after months or years of making the same recommendation. Whatever the impetus, though, on August 16, Nolasco took the mound against the Colorado Rockies, and he pitched from the first-base side of the pitching rubber. That was unusual. Nolasco had always pitched from the third-base side, as a lot of right-handed hurlers do, as it creates a better angle for their glove-side breaking pitches.
It wasn’t an immediate, natural leap forward. Nolasco threw wild pitches in each of the first two innings, and would surrender five runs to the Rockies. He also completed the game, though, albeit in an eight-inning losing effort, in 107 pitches, and he induced 19 swings and misses, a season high. Making that move didn’t dampen the effectiveness of Nolasco’s slider; it enhanced it. Mechanically, it also allowed Nolasco to relax a bit. He struggles with timing, and therefore, with the consistency of his release, and that has occasionally created command problems for him. With the slight change in angle created by sliding to his glove side, Nolasco worried less about getting around on time, rotating through to the correct point. He rushed his delivery less. The change worked for him, and even though his ERA rose during that game, it’s fallen sharply ever since. In fact, since making that change, Nolasco has now pitched 254.1 innings, over 41 starts, with an ERA of 3.64. He’s struck out 203 of the 1,065 batters he’s faced, a far cry from the gaudy frequency of whiffs he induced in his heyday but a very nice rebound.
He now employs a rare, true five-pitch repertoire, with both the four-seamer and the sinker, a slow curve and that splitter-slider combination. He’s not a ground-ball pitcher, but no longer an extreme fly-ball guy either. He throws his fastball mainly off the plate away from left-handed batters, and either in under the hands or off the plate away, and low, to right-handers. He’s the rare pitcher who throws his heat less than half the time, and that’s even if you count both his four-seam fastball and his sinker as heat. He has either discovered fastball command, or simply given up on throwing it for strikes.
It’s tempting, given the strikeout rate and the money they spent to acquire him, to suggest that Nolasco is a whole new kind of pitcher for a team long mired in the pitch-to-contact abyss. That’s not really true. He pitches to contact, in a way, himself. His walk rate has crept up even as he’s improved over the last year-plus, a sign that he’s done challenging hitters with hittable pitches in hitter’s counts, but that was his modus operandi for a long time, and won’t likely ever go away entirely. He’s a junkballer, now. He’s proved himself malleable, or at least flexible. He’s survived a major velocity and strikeout-rate drop, or seems to have.
I’m not sure whether all that means that his prognosis is good, or not. If the question is whether his recent improvement, which stands so apart from his career norm, is real, I think the answer is yes. He’s still due for some regression in home-run rate on fly balls, but his renaissance as a resourceful guy who can miss bats is real. If the question is whether that improvement is durable and sustainable, though, that’s a tougher call. It’s possible that the league will make a responding adjustment, forcing Nolasco to make a new one. It’s possible that a second velocity drop will leave even this deep arsenal of pitches limp. It’s possible that the issues Nolasco has nearly always encountered when pitching out of the stretch will come back to haunt him anew, and that even his less rotational delivery will feel rushed as he ages.
Given all that, it’s hard to evaluate this deal today. Its value will be determined by whether Nolasco’s skill set remains relatively intact for its duration; by whether Nolasco changes the Twins, or the Twins change Nolasco; and by the vagaries of health and luck that determine so much of a pitcher’s success or failure. Nolasco lacks front-line upside, and does not lack for downside, but his median projection—and what I’d bet on, if I had money to bet—is an average big-league starter who hovers around 200 innings and a 4.00 ERA, even in the American League. It’s possible to make a large investment in a medium-risk, minimal-reward asset, and still come out ahead. I sort of think the Twins will do that here.
Phil Hughes: On the Fly
Even at the time, everyone acknowledged that Phil Hughes was a somewhat strange Best Pitching Prospect in Baseball, from a profile perspective. Those guys usually throw very, very hard. Hughes was more of a 92-95-MPH guy, touching higher, but never sitting higher. His secondary arsenal included an acceptable changeup, but was predicated on a cutter and a curveball—a strange assortment. He commanded them all well. He pounded the zone with them, really. It was just a strange array of offerings, and a strange profile.
Seven frustrating seasons later, seven half-steps toward stardom and seven full strides away from it, Hughes has left the limelight behind, and that strange profile looks like a big red warning beacon, in hindsight. He failed to live up to the considerable hype in New York, and although he’s just 27 years old, he runs the risk of being labeled a bust if even his first season in Minnesota goes poorly.
Hughes hasn’t lost velocity, the way Nolasco did. He might yet do so, but he’s three-and-a-half years Nolasco’s junior and hasn’t run into the problems of aging within the game. Hughes throws his fastball roughly 92 miles per hour, on average. A bit more. That’s been his number for, more or less, all the time he’s been a big-league starter. What’s changed—what Hughes has had to change, in order to survive, let alone thrive—is the blend of pitches that surround the fastball.
That curveball, the one that graded out so handsomely and had minor-league hitters lunging, leaning and lamenting having tried is all but gone. The cutter, he left on the trainer’s table after shoulder inflammation halved his 2011 season. It’s not clear whether he felt the cutter was part of the culprit for the injury, or whether he simply scrapped it, but either way. it’s gone.
Curveballs are risky pitches. Some hurlers have great ones, but it seems to me that whereas a changeup requires only deception, and a slider relies almost wholly on its violent movement and speed, a curve must have both in order to work, consistently, against Major League batters. Those guys all survived all the cuts. They all proved they can hit even good breaking stuff. I suspect, although I cannot prove, that a curve is (short of a knuckleball) the toughest pitch to truly scout, to determine whether it will work as a pitcher ascends the professional ladder. In Hughes’ case, that pitch, one he leaned on so heavily as a prospect, didn’t hold up.
In place of both the curve and the cutter, but not a clear or direct descendant of either in his case, is a slider. Hughes still throws his curve (sparingly) and a changeup, but he’s mostly a fastball-slider guy now. The results early in his second life, with his second repertoire, have been nothing but ugly, but they’re not the point. The hope is that that pitch will work for Hughes, in a way that his old complementary stuff didn’t.
By now, you’ve heard that Hughes is one of the three most extreme fly-ball starters in baseball, and depending on how you parse the numbers, perhaps the most extreme. That’s true, and that’s not a good thing, even in Target Field. While flies will certainly meet more resistance in the colder Minnesota air, and while Target Field doesn’t have a wind tunnel sucking lazy fly balls over the right-center-field walls, and while there are no short porches at which left-handed hitters can take aim, fly balls are dangerous things. Very good fly-ball pitchers have shown some ability to keep a higher percentage of flies in the park than an average hurler, but at least at the moment, Hughes isn’t one of those. He’s a bad fly-ball pitcher. He’s a pitcher without a pitch he can keep down consistently, or whose trajectory discourages well-struck flies.
What you might not know about Hughes is this: Out of 145 pitchers who threw at least 100 innings in 2013, only two (Cliff Lee and Bartolo Colon) threw a higher percentage of their pitches in the strike zone, according to FanGraphs. As with Nolasco, peeling back a few layers lets us see how Hughes is, in all honesty, very much a Twins kind of guy. He throws strikes. He doesn’t walk people, and despite his fairly impressive velocity numbers, he doesn’t have sensational stuff. He does have a solid strikeout-to-walk ratio, thanks especially to that control, but the shine is off the apple. He’s had to strip down and rebuild his repertoire. He’s all out of physical projection. Like Nolasco, Hughes is a new man. It remains to be seen whether, like Nolasco, he can be a better pitcher this way.
What it All Means
These are not the pitchers, nor the contract terms, I would recommend to a contending team. That said, they read as monumental victories for the Twins. I’m not sure it reflects any philosophical change, although I certainly advocate a change of philosophy for the organization, but it means immediate and significant change for the team. The splurge could even end up boosting the 2015 and 2016 teams, even if neither guy is on those rosters.
First of all, no team in baseball needed starting pitching worse than the Twins. No team stood to gain as much from two additions, even if they turn out to be pedestrian ones. Secondly, the team had an image problem, and an attendance problem, and this helps address both. General Manager Terry Ryan wore underspending his budget as a badge of honor in 2013, and that turned out to be both a competitive and a public-relations calamity, as well it ought to have.
Secondly, organizations must be dynamic. They must change, and adapt. They need new blood, every now and then. The front-office staff that make the big decisions have been around for the better part of 30 years, but a few weeks ahead of these moves, they did make two new hires with some statistical savvy on their resumes. The on-field staff remains groaningly stagnant, but whereas they’ve had an unacceptably low number of players from other teams, who could bring different ideas or perspectives to the clubhouse and the field, they now have two very foreign faces at the front of the starting rotation.
Hughes and Nolasco have no ace upside. What they do, though, is provide some stability, some innings, some possible trade fodder and a whole lot of freshness. The Twins targeted two players who have had to make radical changes in order to survive this long, and made them rich. It’s the pair’s job to respond by enriching a franchise that has been too afraid of radical changes.