Let’s face it; the 2012 Colorado Rockies look ugly. Two game ‘winning streak’ notwithstanding, the veteran lineup that was constructed to hit away from Coors Field has posted the 4th worst offense in baseball on the road. The once sure-handed defense of the Rockies is 25th in the majors in fielding percentage. Their pitching staff, well they can’t… pitch, at all really. To top it all off this week owner Dick Monfort decided to speak out in defense of manager Jim Tracy, GM Dan O’Dowd, and pretty much the entire staff tasked with making the Rockies a far better ballclub than the fans have seen in the team’s first two decades. In particular Monfort drew the ire of fans and media alike by proclaiming that O’Dowd was the best GM in baseball (that he knew of).
And there it was. No promise of change in sight Rockies fans. Just the opposite in fact: the promise of no change whatsoever. It sucks for all of us, but if you’re like me, unfortunately you’ve already made peace with the fact that your masochistic baseball fanaticism will probably dictate that you’ll watch every game anyways. Not much else in the sports world to watch during the summer, and judging from the attendance at Coors Field on any given day, clearly I’m not the only person who’s had this epiphany. So since we’re strapped in for what looks every day to be an increasingly long ride of the 2012 season, you take your bright spots where you can find them.
It was with this mindset that I started thinking about all the young arms the Rockies have been utilizing this season, to varying (see: marginal) degrees of success, and trying to determine which of these pitchers has the best chance of prolonged success at the major league level. And while I truly believe in Drew Pomeranz and Alex White, the key cogs of the Ubaldo Jimenez trade, the name I keep coming back to is Juan Nicasio.
The guy broke his neck last year and is pitching in the majors. Plenty of people would just leave it at that, and nobody could blame them, but personally I am fascinated by all the other obstacles that little incident implies. We are talking about a guy who was forced to skip AAA baseball altogether last season (contrary to popular belief that was never part of the plan for Nicasio) due to injuries and general ineffectiveness by other starters, and was throwing fastballs for a ridiculous 74% of his pitches for the Rockies. This was with the belief that he would have all offseason to work on secondary pitches that eventually determine how effective a young hurler will be in the majors over time. After all, even elite fireballers like Justin Verlander only throw about 60% fastballs.
Insert the whole broken neck incident. Now all of a sudden Nicasio is spending his entire offseason rehabbing and when he finally starts pitching again the goal is entirely based on building up arm strength and getting his velocity back to pre-injury speed. More than one person from the Rockies’ organization was very candid about the fact that Nicasio didn’t work on breaking pitches at all during the offseason
And yet by the time Spring Training rolled around Nicasio was projected by the team to be a number three or four starter on Opening Day. Wow, so much for a learning curve. I figured maybe some time in AAA was in order, maybe even some time in extended spring or in AA to work on those breaking pitches, but Colorado was having none of it. Jim Tracy was quoted saying about Nicasio, “To say he has courage … I don't know if that's a strong enough choice of words.” Yeah, I think it’s kind of a bizarre quote too, but Tracy is kind of a strange guy, and at any rate we all get the point; Nicasio’s got a pair that clank
Now, taking all of that into account, Nicasio has managed to give up two runs or fewer in five of his nine starts this season, post a 2.40 strikeout to walk ratio, and cut down on his fastball rate to a more sustainable 66% while working on his secondary pitches on the fly (26% sliders compared to 15% last year). What’s more, his Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP, and its regression, xFIP, are largely considered to be the best judges of future performance of a pitcher), suggest that Nicasio’s 4.83 ERA is due to come down, and we could even expect a sub-3.80 ERA from him in the future, especially if he can learn to adjust his game to Coors Field. On the road, Nicasio is the proud owner of a 1.31 ERA and 18 strikeouts in 20.2 innings. With fairly low home run rates (1.07 per nine innings), there’s plenty reason to believe Nicasio’s home/road splits will not remain as extreme as they appear now. Oh, and did I mention he’s less than a year removed from breaking his freaking neck
I understand that the amazing story of Juan Nicasio’s recovery is nothing new, but I think it’s important that people understand that the result is a (still) young pitcher who was forced to skip AAA baseball and was never given the offseason he needed to develop into a more complete pitcher. What’s more, he it won’t be until 2013 that we will get to see what that developmental offseason will yield in terms of Nicasio’s return on the Rockies’ investment in him. So while the 2012 outlook on the Rockies is pretty bleak right now, Juan Nicasio shows the promise to be one of the few homegrown pitchers in Rockies’ history to make it to bona fide elite pitcher status.