Ricky Nolasco was the befuddler. Statistically minded folks figured a while back that if you took a pitcher's innings pitched, walks, strikeouts, and home runs allowed, you would have a good idea of that pitcher's true talent. It was better than ERA, at least, and for 90 percent of the pitchers out there, it worked beautifully.
Nolasco was the befuddler, though -- part statistical conundrum, part obscure Batman villain. He didn't walk a lot of batters. He struck out more than his fair share. Yet for five straight seasons, his ERA was higher than expected. If you use FanGraphs' WAR -- based on walks, strikeouts, and innings pitched -- Nolasco has been one of the better pitchers in baseball over the last few years. If you use the WAR from Baseball-Reference.com -- based on the actual runs given up -- Nolasco can barely catch up to Rick Porcello and Randy Wolf.
But in 2013, the befuddler and the latent ace met at the crossroads. When hardly anything was going well for the Marlins, Nolasco was one of the bright spots early this season. The team tried to trade him and his salary in the offseason, but no one wanted to take the risk. When the season started, though, Nolasco was the semi-ace that FIP and xFIP had predicted all along. After all those weird seasons, Nolasco was finally close to where he should have been all along.
Then when he got the Dodgers, he was even better. In his first 12 games, the Dodgers were 10-2. He had a 2.07 ERA, with 62 strikeouts and 17 walks in 74 innings. He was one of the Dodgers' best pitchers, and he was picking up steam heading into free agency. Just imagine what a successful run through the playoffs would do for his asking price. If there were a dream scenario for Nolasco, that was it. He escaped the Marlins to go to a guaranteed playoff team, and he had one of the better stretches of his career.
And that's the story of how Ricky Nolasco made $80 million over five years.
Except, hold on. There was a glitch. In his third-to-last start, Nolasco gave up seven runs and got only four outs. The Dodgers went on to allow 19 runs to the Giants that game, a Dodger Stadium record. In his second-to-last start, he allowed six runs in five innings. In Nolasco's last start, the Giants jumped on him again, tagging him for eight hits and six runs.
Three starts. Three bad starts, mind you, but still just three starts. That's how long it took for Nolasco to turn from a surprisingly effective fourth horseman for the Dodgers to an untrustable starter. He came out of the bullpen for his final appearance of the year, and the Dodgers decided to start Clayton Kershaw on short rest rather than risk a poor start from Nolasco in the Division Series.
In Game 4 of the NLCS, Don Mattingly pulled Nolasco after just four innings. The right-hander allowed three runs, including a homer to Matt Holliday, and that was enough for Mattingly to move quickly to emergency measures. Nolasco wasn't to be trusted, apparently, and the decision to pull him at the first sign of trouble was probably made a week ago.
And that's the story of how Ricky Nolasco didn't get a big free-agent contract, even after everything seemed to be going his way.
Three bad starts and a Matt Holliday home run were all worth more than that 12-start stretch of brilliance after becoming a Dodger. If that seems harsh, then you're probably thinking that 12-start stretch meant more than the 130 starts he made after his breakout season in 2008. Since 2009, Nolasco's ERA has been 0.03 better than Barry Zito's. Hardly the kind of guy a team should be counting on in the playoffs. The Dodgers likely had his true value pegged all along, even as they were enjoying his unsustainable run.
So it goes for Ricky Nolasco, who will go somewhere on a show-me deal, most likely, and continue his pattern of annoying teams and sabermetricians alike. He was this close to making Scrooge McDuck money. He was having the right run at the right time for the right team. He came up about three or four games short.
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