Nolasco's best nets a big payday

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Ricky Nolasco profited off a strong 2013 season.The Minnesota Twins made one of the boldest free agent moves they've ever made, reportedly agreeing to a deal with free agent starting pitcher Ricky Nolasco.

Media reports put the value of the deal at four years and $49 million.

In 2013, Nolasco had his best season since 2008, his first full year as a full-time starter, with a 3.70 ERA and 1.21 WHIP (down from an average of 4.42 and 1.28 over the previous five seasons).

The Twins are hoping for the version of Nolasco that was 8-1 with a 2.07 ERA in his first 12 starts after being traded from the Miami Marlins to the Los Angeles Dodgers, rather than the one who went 0-3 with a 10.59 ERA over his final five appearances (including a loss to the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLCS).

The Twins ranked 26th, 29th and 30th in the major leagues in starting pitcher ERA over the last three seasons. The latter two are among the nine worst in franchise history.

The contract

The contract will be the largest the Twins have ever given to a free agent in terms of total value and average annual value.

The previous high for total value was a five-year $30-million deal given to Kirby Puckett, who re-signed with the team in the 1992-93 offseason (the second-largest free agent deal that offseason).

The largest given to someone who was not with the team was a three-year, $21-million deal given to Josh Willingham in the 2011-12 offseason.

He's the first free agent to sign a deal with the Twins averaging more than $9 million per season. Brad Radke had the previous highest average annual value, a two-year deal worth $18 million in the 2004-05 offseason.

What made Nolasco better in 2013?

Advanced metrics have usually projected Nolasco to be a better pitcher than his basic numbers indicated because of his strikeouts, walks and ERA.

This was actually Nolasco’s best season in terms of those three stats, relative to the rest of the league.

He finished with 165 strikeouts, 46 walks and 17 home runs allowed in 199 1/3 innings, his third straight season pitching more than 190 innings.

One of the things that led to Nolasco’s ERA being lower was that in addition to the numbers just cited, the Dodgers and Marlins turned ground balls into outs for him at a higher rate than the Marlins had from 2010 to 2012.

In that three-season span, about 29 percent of the ground balls against him resulted in a batter reaching base. In 2013, that dipped to 23 percent.

The difference is about 15 baserunners over the course of a season.

What went wrong at the end of 2013?

Nolasco got roughed up at the end of the season in two starts against the Giants, and once against the Diamondbacks and Cardinals.

Opponents vs Nolasco
Fastball in Strike Zone (2013)

The issue appeared to be one of too many hittable heaters.

Nolasco’s rate of fastballs thrown in the strike zone was nine percentage points above his 48 percent rate through the rest of the regular season.

In turn those pitches were rapped around quite a bit, as noted in the chart on the right.