The Orioles rotation is not having a very good year. Despite the Orioles having a 41-30 record, the rotation is only 23-23 with a 4.93 ERA (4th worst in the majors). More advanced statistics treat them more favorably, as they have only the 8th lowest FIP and somehow rank 18th in fWAR. While Chris Tillman is having an excellent year, the only other starters with an ERA under 5.00 are Kevin Gausman with a 0-5 record and a 4.37 ERA and Tyler Wilson with a 3-5 record and a 4.57 ERA. An upgrade probably wouldn’t hurt for the rotation.
The challenge is that the Orioles have already spent significant resources building their rotation. They signed two free agent starters, Jimenez and Gallardo, which are earning significant cash. Likewise, Tillman is arbitration-eligible and is also making a decent sum. The Orioles may not be willing to splurge on another starting pitching asset, especially given how poorly Jimenez and Gallardo have performed. In addition, there is little quality projected to be on the market this deadline. Despite the fact that there are nine teams at least eight games below .500, there is minimal quality pitching to be found. The Orioles need to decide whether they want to deplete their few remaining sources on a gamble.
Except, there’s one pitcher, Ricky Nolasco, that will probably be available for cheap. It’s for good reason, this is his first year out of the last three where his ERA has been below 5.00, and he’s flirting with the 5.00 mark this year also. In addition, he’ll cost a pro-rated portion of $12M this year, he’s under contract for $12M in 2017 and he’s got a shot of triggering a vesting option for $13M in 2018. For this post, the data is from ESPN Stats and Information.
On first glance, he looks like a pretty awful rotation piece. However, a closer look suggests he’s a viable option for the rotation. The first hint that he may have some potential is the fact that he has a 4.95 ERA but a 3.69 FIP. The second is that he pitches for a team that plays poor defense. The Twins defense ranks 27th from 2013-2016 and has been worth -114 runs. Is bad defense causing him problems?
This year, a quick glimpse of his stats shows that has BABIP is .336. But, more importantly, his BABIP in 2015 was .392 and in 2014 was .354. It seems fair to propose that his defense is hurting him. In addition, his walk rate went from 8.1% in 2015 to 4.7% in 2016. This improvement has come mostly against left handed batters, as he had an 11.1% walk rate vs them in 2015 and just a 4% rate against them this year. His walk rate against righties is well-within career norms. The table below shows his overall performance.
Batters seem to have hit him hard on pitches put into play, regardless of whether the pitches have been in the strike zone or not. Batters have a .403 wOBA against pitches hit in the strike zone and a .390 wOBA (.400/.394/.500) against pitches hit outside the strike zone this year. Batters usually don’t do well when they swing at pitches out of the strike zone, and it’s not like they’re hammering home runs against him. Out of the 97 qualified pitchers, that’s the 10th worst result, although Nationals’ aces Strasburg and Scherzer are allowing a .404 and .406 wOBA against those types of pitches this year. This problem can probably be attributed to bad luck or bad defense. He ranks 32nd out of 97 against pitches put into play that are in the strike zone. This isn’t good, but does suggest that we can expect a slight bit of improvement from him. The table below shows his performance in these situations.
In addition, he’s having dreadful luck with men on base. When the bases are empty, batters have a .327 wOBA against him with a .296 BABIP, which is a bit lower than his results in previous years. With one runner on base, opposing batters have a .347 wOBA against him with a .397 BABIP. These results are slightly better than they’ve been in past years. With two runners on base, batters have a .410 wOBA against him with a .370 BABIP. In addition, Nolasco only has a 10.3% K% and a 15.4% BB%. This is far worse than his results in other seasons with the exception of 2015. With bases loaded, opposing batters have a .440 wOBA against him (.571/.444/.714) and he has gotten 2 non-sacrifice outs in play, 1 strikeout, 2 sacrifice flies, 3 singles and a double. Simply put, batters are killing him in the clutch. Nolasco historically does struggle more with runners on base than without runners on base, but it seems that he’s gotten some bad breaks to start this season.
As discussed previously, one area where Nolasco has improved is walks against lefties. The reason for this is because he’s throwing fewer balls. 35.2% of his pitches against lefties have been called balls in 2016, compared to 43% in 2015 and roughly 38% from 2012-2014. Meanwhile, his called strike rate is around career norms and his swinging strike, fouled balls and balls put into play right are above his averages. As a result, he has allowed significantly fewer walks. See the chart below.
Part of the reason for this is that he figured out how to throw his splitter again. Last year, he couldn’t throw his splitter for a strike and batters simply didn’t swing at the pitch. Nearly three-fourths of his splitters last year against lefties resulted in a ball and only 12% resulted in either a called or swinging strike. This year, 40% of his splitters result in a called ball while 22% result in a strike. He’s fixed his splitter and that’s helped him be successful. See the chart below.
In addition, he’s gotten lucky with the curve and slider. He’s throwing the same amount in the zone as he has in previous year, but lefty batters are swinging at 56.6% of them as opposed to roughly 40-45% in previous years. Therefore 27.5% of these pitches have been called balls while 31% have been either called or swinging strikes. This either means that his curve/slider have become significantly better at fooling batters or that Nolasco has gotten lucky.
My opinion is that Nolasco probably isn’t as good as his FIP suggests, but I think he’s gotten more bad luck than good luck. Going forward, I’d expect him to have an ERA in the low 4s. I also think that being behind a good defense will help him significantly. He’s under contract for only one more year after this one, so trading for him wouldn’t be a huge risk.
I don’t think it would take so much to acquire him. He does have a limited no-trade clause, but the three teams on it are the Red Sox, Yankees and Blue Jays. The Orioles probably wouldn’t be willing to take on Nolasco’s entire salary, so the first piece in a deal would have to be either Jimenez or Gallardo. The Orioles seem to be more down on Jimenez than Gallardo, so it makes sense to try to build the deal around Jimenez.
The first thing the Orioles would need to include is enough cash to pay the difference between the two players’ salaries. This will only be a few million, but every little bit counts. In addition, the Orioles will likely need to add a few prospects. Nolasco hasn’t had good results for the past few years, so they won’t be expecting much in return. This is the quintessential case of buying low on a player. I think that offering Mancini and Scott would be enough to get a deal done. However, the Twins would likely prefer one of Bundy, Wright or Wilson in a deal as opposed to Mancini being as they already have Mauer and Park. I would think that the Twins would need to add another piece, or take on some more cash to get one of those pitchers.
This trade would be a risk, but perhaps not overly much. If Nolasco doesn’t pan out, well Jimenez is already in the bullpen. Furthermore, Mancini isn’t likely to be able to hit well enough to become a DH while Scott is at best a reliever. These may be some of the Orioles’ best prospects, but they have limited value. And if the Orioles are going to make a deal, something like this is the best they can hope to pull off.