Juan Nicasio, Fascinating Relief Project

If you haven’t been particularly excited by Joel Peralta, Kyle Jensen, Mike Bolsinger and now Juan Nicasio, acquired from the Rockies this afternoon, you could probably be forgiven. None are going to sell tickets. Several looked pretty bad in the more traditional stats, and so you get why these minor moves have been difficult for some to swallow. But all have something to like, especially Peralta, and none have really cost anything at all, other than Jose Dominguez. The larger moves will come, but improving depth matters quite a bit, too.

What also matters is looking beyond some lousy front-line stats — like Nicasio’s three straight years with ERA marks north of 5.00 — to find some hidden value. So let’s get to know the newest Dodger, and see why the new regime might find an otherwise below-average starter appealing. Nicasio is 28 and a native of the Dominican Republic, signing with the Rockies as a free agent in 2006. In the minors, he piled up some incredibly impressive K/BB numbers — 467/104 in 471.1 innings — before getting called up to the big leagues in 2011.

In 13 games that first season, Nicasio pitched pretty effectively, putting up a 3.65 FIP (I’m not even going to mention ERA again, because Coors Field and awful Rockies bullpen) before suffering one of the scariest moments I can remember seeing, taking a liner to the head off the bat of Ian Desmond in August. Worse, he literally broke his neck when he hit the ground. No, really:

In an Aug. 5 game at Coors Field, Desmond hit a line drive up the middle and Nicasio was unable to throw up his glove in time to protect himself. The ball struck his left temple with sufficient force to fracture his skull and produce bleeding on the brain. To compound matters, Nicasio broke his neck during the subsequent fall. He was carried off the field on a stretcher, and underwent emergency surgery to have his C-1 vertebrae repaired.

Somewhat shockingly, Nicasio made it back for Opening Day in 2012, and was again effective — 3.99 FIP in 11 starts — before blowing out his left knee in June, requiring surgery. In 2013, he completed his only full season in the rotation (31 starts, 157.2 innings) but it wasn’t a successful one. As his velocity dipped (down from 94 in 2011 to 91 in 2013) his strikeouts did as well, and his walks went up. Unsurprisingly, his 4.25 FIP was a career-worst to that point, though there were reports that the knee was still bothering him through most of the season. Fully healthy in 2014, he had his worst year yet, again seeing his strikeouts dip (his K%-BB% was 7.8 in each of the last two years, down from 13.4% in 2011) and after 14 starts to open the season, he spent two midseason months in the minors and was relegated to the bullpen upon his return in August.

So far, we have a guy with minor league production, brief major league production, two serious injuries, and a recent run of ineffectiveness. What else?

Like Bolsinger, Nicasio is mostly a two-pitch guy, throwing his fastball and slider almost exclusively, mostly ditching his change and trying to work in a sinker this year:

nicasio_pitch-ix

Righties without a good third pitch very, very rarely succeed as starters. But like most pitchers moved to the bullpen, his velocity increased when he spent the last two months in relief…

nicasio_velocity

…and in 20.2 innings as a reliever, he had a 17/5 K/BB. Here he is using the slider and the fastball to put away Scott Van Slyke in September. (Yes, the Carlos Frias game. Sorry.)

GIF Link

GIF Link

Though Nicasio would be at the moment likely the team’s fifth starter behind Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Hyun-jin Ryu, and Dan Haren, I’m really not interested in him in that role, and I think we all know the Dodgers will move to add another starter. But as a reliever, a two-pitch guy who can touch 95 in short stints? Well, that’s fascinating, really, because I’ve long loved the idea of taking mediocre starters who don’t have a good enough third pitch or velocity to survive in the rotation and turning them into relief assets. I’m not suggesting that Nicasio will be Wade Davis, but you get the idea — it’s the exact same thing.

I shouldn’t do this, but… oh, hell. Here’s Nicasio and Davis as starters:

Name GS IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 GB% HR/FB FIP xFIP WAR
Juan Nicasio 69 360.1 6.92 3.25 1.17 44.60% 12.30% 4.38 4.10 4.6
Wade Davis 88 513.2 6.33 3.36 1.12 38.20% 9.70% 4.49 4.50 4.3

I mean… it’s a little eerie, right?  Davis pitched more innings and allowed fewer homers — not being in Colorado helped — but he didn’t get the grounders Nicasio did. Otherwise, they were basically the same. And I know that I could do this exercise on a bunch of lousy starters who didn’t turn into one of the most dominating relievers in the game, and to even pretend that Nicasio could be that is a fun dream, but you get the point, right?

I mean, this is what Farhan Zaidi was talking about in this unfortunately-titled article after the trade:

Zaidi said Nicasio’s role is yet to be determined but likely to be in the bullpen. According to Fangraphs, Nicasio’s average fastball was 92.7 mph last season, but it ticked up to 95 mph when he pitched in relief.

“His stuff and performance played up in that role,” Zaidi said.

As a starter, the team can and must do better than Nicasio. As a zero-cost, lottery ticket reliever, one who is still young, very recently showed talent, and is hopefully beyond two major freak injuries? I like this. I like this a lot. And if it doesn’t work out? Big deal. He’s going to make slightly more than $2 million in arbitration. Cut him. Big deal. This is worth losing Ryan Jackson over. It may not be exciting, but it’s exactly the kind of smart thinking we’ve always wanted this team to have.

About Mike Petriello

Mike Petriello
Mike writes about lots of baseball in lots of places, and right now that place is MLB.com.