The St. Louis Cardinals failed to reach the postseason for the second season in a row. Don’t be fooled, playing meaningful games in September isn’t that big of a deal. Rather, competing deep into the playoffs (on a consistent basis) is expected. If the organization wants to get back to doing that, they simply must improve the 25-man roster going into 2018. Say what you want about the manager, but barring an unexpected development, he will be back next season. The new pitching coach will undoubtedly play a role in the team’s future success (or failure), but improvements to the 25-man roster should be considered the offseason’s top priority.
Thus, the 31-year-old Juan Nicasio — who performed nearly flawlessly upon his arrival in St. Louis — must be re-signed. With the tendering of a contract to Trevor Rosenthal up in the air (due to his recovery from Tommy John surgery) and the almost certain departure of the no-longer-effective Seung Hwan Oh, the back-end of the bullpen requires serious bolstering. Fortunately, the Cardinals had a firsthand look for an entire month of one of the most desirable options in Nicasio. Beyond September — in which he posted a 1.46 ERA — his 2017, as a whole, ranked quite well among his peers:
Honestly, I could stop here in my explanation as to why Nicasio is a must-sign, but that’d be boring (and downright lazy). Rather, I have chosen to take a closer look at Nicasio’s repertoire, in an attempt to understand why he was so successful this season. First and foremost, it doesn’t hurt that his fourseamer — which he threw 71.3% of the time — averaged 95.75 MPH in 2017. While this isn’t Aroldis Chapman-type velocity, it isn’t by any means slow. He coupled the heater with a hard slider (averaging 88.91 MPH) 26.01% of the time.
Further, I strongly believe he possesses untapped potential with the changeup. The pitch clocks in similarly to the slider at 87.96 MPH but carries a considerably different movement profile. From a tunneling perspective, the pitch matches up perfectly with his most-frequently-thrown fourseamer. Bottom line, the changeup is a pitch I’d want the new pitching coach to work on with Nicasio should he ultimately re-sign.
If a pitch is thrown 71.3% of the time — as is the case with Nicasio’s fourseamer — it must be pretty good. And Nicasio’s was as it led to whiffs on 25% of swings in 2017 (an unusually high rate for a fourseamer), and opposing hitters managed only a .216 batting average (and .123 isolated power) against it. He was better than league average in both exit velocity (87.6 MPH versus 88.2 MPH) and launch angle (10.7° versus 15.8°), as well.
Two-strike fourseamer location (after joining the Cardinals)
As you can see, with two strikes, Nicasio possesses enough confidence in his fourseamer to keep it within the strike zone. While most pitchers aim to have hitters expanding their zones with two strikes, this doesn’t appear to be the case with Nicasio, and this includes his time prior to becoming a Cardinal as well. Further, his confidence in his stuff went beyond just two strikes as his overall zone percentage of 51.5% ranked seventh highest among qualifying MLB relievers. For perspective, Greg Holland — another Cardinal target this offseason — posted a zone percentage of just 45.9%. Give me the pitcher with the higher zone percentage (but also comparable overall numbers) every single time.
And no, the fourseamer isn’t limited to only two-strike success, either. In fact, when you include pitchers (both starters and relievers) with at least 30 balls in play on fourseamers up, but still inside the strike zone, Nicasio ranked 17th best in MLB with a .199 wOBA (wOBA primer found here). Even better, his xwOBA (or expected wOBA) was even stingier at .169 — tied for 7th best in baseball.
No pitching analysis article is complete without the work of the great @cardinalsgifs. Let’s go beyond my words by utilizing visual documentation behind Nicasio’s 2017 success:
Strikes one and two to Javier Baez (BrooksBaseball At Bat)
Given the usual incredibly small sample, I don’t typically put much stock in pitcher-hitter matchups. That being said, Baez had owned Nicasio prior to this at bat, recording six hits (four singles, one double, and one home run) in 10 plate appearances. Nicasio didn’t allow past failures to get in the way with his September Cardinals’ mojo. Instead, he attacked Baez down and away for called strikes one and two. As you can see, he throws the slider so hard that it actually tunnels quite well with his fourseamer (important to consider if, but hopefully when, he works on his changeup). Even if Baez would have swung at either of these two pitches, he wasn’t going to make solid, meaningful contact.
Strike three to Javier Baez (BrooksBaseball At Bat)
After missing down, away, and in the dirt on pitch number three — subsequently training Baez’s eyes for a pitch down (a 93.1 MPH slider) — Nicasio blows him away with an up-and-in, 97.5 MPH fourseamer for strike three. Look no further than Nicasio’s reaction to understand the filthiness of this approach.
Ball one to Brett Phillips (BrooksBaseball At Bat)
After inducing a swinging strike one and a called strike two — both on fourseamers up and away — Nicasio absolutely nails the up and inside corner with a 95 MPH sinker. Unfortunately, the umpire was as locked up as the hitter and didn’t pull the trigger on a called strike three. The ability to paint up and in with a similar pitch to the one you threw on the two pitches prior is a skill not many pitchers have. Nicasio certainly has this skill, and it is a large reason why his fourseamer possesses such a high swing and miss rate.
Strikes one and two to Ian Happ (BrooksBaseball At Bat)
Even when Nicasio missed his spot — as he did on both of these fourseamers — he still experienced success by going up in the zone. In the GIF prior, I showed his ability to go up and in to lefties — after showing his ability to go up and in to righties. Here, he shows that he is capable of blowing it past lefties on fourseamers up and away. From an effective velocity stand point, you lose a couple MPH on pitches away versus pitches in, so this speaks highly to Nicasio’s raw velocity.
Strike three to Addison Russell (BrooksBaseball At Bat)
And just in case you wondering, Nicasio can experience success down in the zone as well. After attacking Russell up on the three pitches prior, Nicasio absolutely paints the down and outside corner with a 98.4 MPH fourseamer. Russell stood zero chance on this strikeout.
Yes, the 2018 Cardinals need a lot more help than just one pitcher for the back end of the bullpen. That being said, I hope you now understand just how important Nicasio is for the Cardinals’ future plans. It would not be wise to enter next season solely reliant on young arms like Sam Tuivailala and Sandy Alcantara. Re-signing Nicasio would be a good start to a hopefully active winter. Pair him with a pitching coach like Jim Hickey, and he just may perform even better than he did this season. While I wholeheartedly understand frugality when it comes to the signing of relief pitchers, this was thrown out the window with Cecil’s contract. Nicasio is an absolute must-sign. Get it done, Michael Girsch and John Mozeliak.