Wetmore: Twins should expect more than Nolasco provided in first half
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MINNEAPOLIS - The Twins have a right to expect more out of Ricky Nolasco.
He pitched 6 innings and allowed just one earned run Tuesday. That's acceptable. But the first half of the season can be classified a disappointment. His 17th start, the Twins hope, is more indicative of the pitcher he'll be the rest of the season.
Through 16 starts, the most expensive free agent in franchise history had a 5.74 ERA. He pitched 6 or more innings just nine times, and for those that like the 'quality start' stat, Nolasco had just five. Taken alone, none of those stats is a perfect measure of a pitcher's performance. But for those that point out his xFIP was 4.07 over that span, know this: his career xFIP is 70 points lower than his ERA, so it's oversimplifying the picture to say he's been unlucky and he'll regress to better numbers.
Nolasco has been unlucky at times, but regression alone won't make his numbers better. He needs to be better.
The Twins signed Nolasco this offseason to a four-year, $49 million contract, and they expect he'll be better than he has shown thus far.
"You'd hope so," general manager Terry Ryan said. "There's no reason that he can't. He's had a tough go. We need to get him going here. He's one of our major offseason acquisitions. High hopes."
Ryan said before Tuesday's start that Nolasco needs to get "to the point where he's going to step up against a guy like [James] Shields. We've got to stand a chance in this game and he's got to get that done."
For the Twins to improve on their past three dreadful seasons, they'll count on their pitching. Nolasco was expected to be a big part of that this season, and, for the most part, he hasn't.
Nolasco has such a long track record for success that it seems unlikely he has simply forgotten how to pitch. At 31, it's unlikely his skills have declined so much that he went from being roughly a 4.50 ERA pitcher to a nearly 6.00 ERA in one offseason. And while pitchers coming from the National League to tend to perform slightly worse in the American League, the effect is often exaggerated and wouldn't explain the decline in numbers Nolasco has experienced this season.
In the absence of an injury, the smart money is on Nolasco to improve in the second half of the season. Tuesday's game, in which Nolasco earned the win, was a good place to start.
It's worth outlining some realistic expectations for Nolasco. He has logged more than 1,400 career innings across 228 starts. That averages out to just more than 6 innings per start, but there also are 17 relief appearances sprinkled in there. On a per-six-inning basis, Nolasco averages 3.2 runs, 4.88 strikeouts and 1.69 walks. If we're rounding, let's just say each of his starts is 6 innings of three runs, five strikeouts and two walks. It doesn't sound all that inspiring, but there's value in being able to stay healthy and put up that line in 30-plus starts per season. Nolasco does that.
Tuesday night's start was "a step in the right direction with the fastball command," Nolasco said, which is something the Twins have said is critical for Nolasco's success.
"We all know his breaking ball is good," manager Ron Gardenhire said before Tuesday's start. "He's got a couple different breaking balls. He can spin a hard one. He recognizes when he's set up a hitter with a good breaking ball. That's no doubt his killer pitch. He sets them up with that slider in the dirt after throwing a couple slower ones and he'll make it look like a fastball coming out and [it's] just a diver.
"When his fastball is good, then they can't just sit out there on that [slider]. But when he's misfiring with his fastball and not close to the plate -- way off inside or way off outside -- it really doesn't set up anything. They know that they're going to get a breaking ball."
Gardenhire said when Nolasco can't throw his fastball for strikes, batters don't have to worry about that pitch and they can cheat over the plate looking for breaking pitches. That can lead extra hits, even on good pitches off the plate.
Nolasco apparently had a good bullpen session in Texas during the latest road trip. He and Rick Anderson worked on Nolasco's split-finger fastball, but Nolasco and Gardenhire both cautioned against reading too much into one good bullpen session.
"I'm hoping tonight starts where he gets on a string here where we can start counting on him where you look out, 'oh, we've got a chance to win this game,'" Ryan said pregame Tuesday.
"That hasn't happened too much. He's thrown a couple good games. How many quality starts does he have? That's not good enough. He's got to do better than that. He will do better than that and he should do better than that."