Back in 2011, Juan Nicasio was a promising rookie pitcher with the Colorado Rockies when he was hit in the head by a line drive. He had surgery to stabilize a fractured vertebra, with two screws and a metal plate inserted into his neck. At the time, there was a possibility his career was over.
He made it back to the majors the following season, but though he still displayed the good arm with the mid-90s fastball, he didn't have much success, posting a 5.14 ERA in 31 starts in 2013 and a 5.38 ERA in 2014 while starting and relieving. The Rockies gave up on him and traded him to the Los Angeles Dodgers, where he spent 2015 pitching in low-leverage relief.
Enter the Pittsburgh Pirates, the bargain shoppers of Major League Baseball. The Pirates didn't know what kind of pitcher they were signing. Maybe a starter for a rotation that lost A.J. Burnett to retirement and J.A. Happ in free agency. He was probably a guy who could at least be a multi-inning arm out of the bullpen. They also had a secret weapon: pitching coach Ray Searage.
Nicasio pitched himself into the rotation after a tremendous spring training in which he allowed no runs in 15 innings with 24 strikeouts and five walks. His first start in the regular season was just as impressive: six innings, two hits, one run, and seven K's in a 5-1 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals to complete a three-game sweep. The only blemish was a Jeremy Hazelbaker home run. He threw 84 pitches: 50 fastballs that averaged an electric 94.9 mph, 29 sliders and five changeups. He was so dominant that he didn't need to deviate from using his two primary power pitches.
That's not necessarily unusual for Nicasio, but he did throw his slider more than he has throughout career. Historically, he has thrown his fastball 72 percent of the time and slider 22 percent of the time; in this game, it was 59 percent fastballs and 35 percent sliders. After the game, catcher Francisco Cervelli said in a TV interview that Nicasio was "able to go on the corners, his fastball was heavy, his slider was great."
No doubt. Is this more Searage magic already in the works? We know the first rule of April baseball is to ignore April baseball, but it's hard to ignore Searage's track record since he became pitching coach of the Pirates. Look at the record of guys they've brought into their rotation:
Season before: 5.15 ERA
With Pirates: 3.41 ERA (two seasons)
Season before: 4.59 ERA
With Pirates: 3.18 ERA (one season)
Francisco Liriano (2013)
Season before: 5.40 ERA
With Pirates: 3.23 ERA (three-plus seasons)
Edinson Volquez (2014)
Season before: 5.71 ERA
With Pirates: 3.04 ERA (one season)
Vance Worley (2014)
Season before: 7.21 ERA
With Pirates: 3.31 ERA (two seasons)
First part of 2015 with Mariners: 4.64 ERA
With Pirates: 1.85 ERA
Volquez has credited Searage with turning around his career. When Happ came over, Searage made some minor adjustments to his delivery and he went on a dominant 10-start run down the stretch. Those two both left for bigger money elsewhere, with Volquez helping the Royals win the World Series.
That's what happens to the Pirates, but they always believe they can find somebody else. Hurdle used to manage in Colorado. "So I know how hard it can be to pitch there," he told ESPN's Jayson Stark in spring training. "And I think, within our industry, there's different ways to look at guys who have pitched there. We liked [Nicasio]. We liked the strength. We liked some of the indicators as we dug deeper. We really liked the resilience, the perseverance, some things the guy fought through, the makeup and the pitch-ability factor."
Of course, it helps that he can throw 95 mph.
It's one start, we have to keep that in mind. The Pirates entered the season with big concerns about their rotation and ace Gerrit Cole won't make his first start until Saturday after a rib injury in spring training. But the Pirates have done this before, the ultimate scavengers in the junkyard.