Andrew Miller changed everything last year.
Whether he can replicate it this year or not, Miller has caused a paradigm shift in the way bullpens will be constructed moving forward. Not only were Miller’s surface stats eye-popping (1.45 ERA/1.68 FIP, 3.o WAR as a reliever, 14.89 K/9, 1.09 BB/9), but his usage once traded to the Indians is what really opened eyes. While with the Indians, he was deployed as a true fireman, anywhere from the 6th inning to the 9th. Whenever the situation seemed hairy, Terry Francona picked up the bullpen phone and then marched out to the mound while tapping his left arm.
For the year, Andrew Miller stranded 95.7% of runners. His absolutely unhittable slider/sinker combo had hitters flailing all year. Batters put up this triple-slash line against him for the year: .160 AVG/.193 OBP/.294 SLG (487 OPS). There were no platoon splits.
But it was in the playoffs that his legend grew. Francona went as far as he could with the Flags Fly Forever mentality, routinely sending Miller out for stints that all were for more than one inning. He entered as early as the 5th inning in three games. At the end of the season, I examined four players that I hoped the Pirates could pick up to turn into their version of Andrew Miller.
Perhaps they feel confident that one already exists on the roster in the form of Juan Nicasio.
The Pirates appear to have a pretty sturdy bullpen forming on paper. In some form or fashion, Tony Watson, Felipe Rivero, and newly-acquired Daniel Hudson should occupy the 7th/8th/9th inning slots. The Pirates thought enough of Juan Nicasio that they tendered him a contract and settled at $3.65M, a rather decent sum of Pirate money to just have a guy be a spot starter/mop up guy.
Some with short memories may groan at the thought of Nicasio, choosing to remember him struggle at the tail end of his tenure as a starter in 2016. But lost in his overall 2016 stats of 4.50 ERA/3.78 FIP are his splits as a reliever after he left the rotation. As a reliever, Nicasio spiked his K/9 to 12.13 from 9.1 as a starter. His walk rate remained relatively the same (3.23 as a reliever versus 3.61 as a reliever), but his home run rate dropped precipitously from 1.59 HR/9 as a starter to 0.65 as a reliever. And all of that includes an astronomically high .362 BABIP, which indicates that some of the hits he gave up may regress in the future.
To tease the stats out even further, Nicasio’s K% (the percentage of all batters faced that he struck out) as a reliever was 31.0%. Coupled with his BB% of 8.3%, his K-BB% (subtract one from the other) was 22.7%. On the Fangraphs’ 2016 relievers leader board, that K-BB% would place him 19th among all qualified relievers. His K% of 31.0% would put him also at 19th amongst his peers. If you take a gander at that chart I just linked, it’s a real who’s who of relievers.
Nicasio pitched 118 innings, so his arm is already stretched out. It’s conceivable that the Pirates are envisioning a role for him that would replicate a scaled-down version of what Cleveland did with Andrew Miller. If a starter is getting ready to face the opposing hitters for a 3rd time and the game is either tied or the Pirates are ahead, Clint Hurdle may turn to Nicasio in the 5th or 6th or 7th to lock it down for an inning or two to bridge the game to the closer (whoever that may be). If Nicasio pitches 3-4 innings per week, be it in 1 inning stints or multiple innings, that would put him around 78 to 104 innings on the year, a number that he is more than equipped to handle.
As is typical, Nicasio saw a spike in his velocity on his fastball. This chart from Brooks Baseball shows Nicasio during his time as a starter from April to June 16th. His fastball was basically 94 mph and his slider 87 mph.
Here’s the same chart on his velocities once he became a reliever after June 16th. His fastball jumped up 1.5 mph, while his slider stayed relatively the same. This speed separation led to his higher success rate as a reliever.
If Juan Nicasio takes well to this potential multi-inning fireman role, it would help reduce the burden on the other back end of the bullpen options, especially Daniel Hudson. I’m worried that if anyone stares too hard at his right elbow that it may implode and require a 3rd Tommy John surgery. If Hurdle really wanted to get crazy…stick with me here…having Nicasio eat up key setup innings could allow him to not have a designated script of end-of-game options. Instead of a rote Rivero-Hudson-Watson trio, he could mix and match them to get saves depending on the batting order to be faced, amount of rest each one is on, or even the potential handedness of the batters.
OK, perhaps I’ve gone a bridge too far. But unless I’m completely misreading the tea leaves and the sense of how baseball is shifting, it seems as if Juan Nicasio is going to be deployed in a much more interesting manner this year.