My initial post after word broke about Ricky Nolasco agreeing to terms with the Twins was in part about about his repertoire. Some context might be in order.
A heavy majority of major league pitchers throw the fastball more than half the time — in an essay in the 2014 Bill James Handbook, James says that, counting the cutter as a separate pitch, 80 percent throw the fastball at least 50 percent of the time. More than half of pitchers throw at least 60 percent fastballs. (If you count the cutter as a fastball, reliance on the fastball is even higher, so these are conservative numbers.)
So Nolasco is an exception. He throws his fastball on just 44 percent of his pitches, or did so in 2013. He threw a breaking ball, curve or slider, just as often as his fastball — and a splitter, a pitch the Twins have apparently discouraged in their system, the remaining 12 percent.
A bit more on Nolasco as a pitcher: He faced 834 batters this year. Those batters (this, again, from the Handbook) generated 258 ground balls (30.9 percent); 146 line drives (17.5 percent); and 196 fly balls (23.5 percent). Of his 3,183 pitches, 64 percent were strikes, and 17 percent were swinging strikes.
In 2012, Nolasco's GB/LD/FB percentages were 34.9 percent/16.2 percent/23.7 percent. (The 2013 Handbook doesn't give the strikes/swinging strike percentages for 2012.)
OK, so what do those numbers mean? I don't really know. This kind of (in James' term) "fourth-level" data is fairly new. I've done a little digging into the numbers regarding some of the Twins pitchers — posts will come as soon as next week — but I'm not sure I really have a good grasp of the context of them. I will say this: Nolasco certainly isn't an outlier in any of these percentages the way he is in pitch selection.
One thing I find intriguing about Nolasco is that his "first and second level" results — wins and losses being what James calls first level, ERA second level— consistently lag his "third level" numbers (batters faced, strikeouts, walks, etc.) Nolasco's "component ERA" — a James invention that projects an ERA off a pitcher's secondary stats — is better, season after season, than his real ERA. Meaning that, for whatever reason, more runs score off him than one should expect from a pitcher who gets his strikeouts, hits, walks and home runs.
Nolasco's career ERA — we should remember, he's been working in pitchers parks in the non-DH league — is 4.37. His career component ERA is 3.89, almost a half-run lower. His career FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) is 3.76, which again is markedly better than the actual ERA. His career ERA+ — which adjusts ERA for park effects — is six points below league average.
This leads me to this conclusion: Nolasco hasn't gotten the results he's capable of getting, and over eight seasons that's probably not a fluke. What he's done was good enough to get him a $49 million contract from a team whose rotation he instantly heads.
He makes the Twins better. He'd make them better still if the final results match the building blocks.