Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Phillies beat Colorado Rockies in walk-off fashion, but Juan Nicasio shows growth

Juan Nicasio has actually enjoyed success with one real pitch.
Walk-off losses sting whether they are in April or September, whether the team is 20 games over .500 or 20 games under .500. The sting just seems to go away a little quicker when it's August and the race is over.

At this point, with the Rockies buried in the National League West race, and nowhere near the wild card leaders, wins and losses are still important, but it becomes easier to focus on the silver linings of losses, rather than their impact on the pennant race.

On Wednesday night in Philadelphia, one of those silver linings started shining through. After a very difficult first half of the season, Rockies starter Juan Nicasio has looked very good in his return to the big leagues. On Wednesday night, he went 5-2/3 innings, giving up one earned run on seven hits.

The Rockies couldn't get Nicasio the win, but one of the areas that will be a focal point for anyone wanting to see the club get better in the off-season will be the fourth and fifth spots in the starting rotation. Throughout the great majority of the season those two spots have nearly represented an automatic loss for the Rockies.

Nicasio has shown the talent, but frankly, hasn't been the same pitcher since an Ian Desmond line drive nearly ended his career, and life for that matter, back in August of 2011. Before the injury, he showed flashes of being a middle-to-top of the rotation kind of guy.

The criticism of Nicasio is that he has only two pitches. If the truth were told, Nicasio really only throws one pitch. In his 19 deliveries in the 1st inning on Wednesday night, the Dominican threw 17 four-seamed fastballs. He threw one change up and one slider, both of which were out of the strike zone.

The 2nd inning was almost a carbon copy of the 1st. Nicasio threw 21 pitches, 20 of them were four-seamed fastballs, one slider, which was out of the zone.

The 3rd inning was 12 pitches, nine of which were four-seamed fastballs, however, one of the three off-speed pitches was fouled off, resulting in the first strike he had thrown with a non-fastball.

Three innings and the point is clear. Nicasio doesn't lack a third pitch, he lacks a second pitch. He doesn't even possess a two-seamed fastball to give some tailing action. With that in mind, the fact that Nicasio is able to get big league hitters out is actually very impressive.

When Nicasio is on the mound, his pitch count gets driven up by the opposition fouling off pitches. They seem to foul off anything that he throws until they get the pitch they are waiting for. When 90 percent of the pitches that Nicasio throws are fastballs, a batter can sit back and wait until he delivers one into the wheelhouse, fouling off the fastballs that aren't ideal and allowing the few off-speed pitches to be called balls.

The reality is, if Nicasio had two pitches that he could throw for strikes, it would probably be enough. He could keep batters off-balance, knowing that they had to be prepared for either a change-up or a slider that would find the plate.

It sounds negative, right? Consider that Nicasio has won seven games in 2013, has an ERA under 5.00 and has given up six-of-his-last-eight starts, it might actually be something that can be applauded. It certainly isn't something that will give the right-hander prolonged success at the Major League level, but it also won't be something that will get worse.

Imagine for one second that Nicasio develops even a decent slider. If he can learn to spin the ball just enough to keep it in the back of the batters mind that they need to be prepared for it, the difference will be amazing. When a Major League hitter can sit on one pitch, not guessing, but knowing that the overwhelming odds suggest that they know what pitch is coming, it doesn't usually end well.

The reality is, the team that played so well in April and May was more than a fluke. It was the product of talent that is good enough to win baseball games. The holes on the team were exposed, hence the Rockies current record. However, where the holes are isn't tough for anyone to guess. They are evident and plain as day. If Nicasio can improve just enough to be dependable, he isn't that bad of a fifth starter. Some improvement from him would put the Rockies in a much better position in 2014.

That improvement must start with the ability to not throw a fastball that doesn't move 90 percent of the time. He has to learn at least one more pitch. That progression has to start in game action before the 2013 season ends, not in a bullpen session over the winter. That is where it will be refined, but now is the time to start figuring out how batters will react to it.

For the Rockies, the holes are clear. They need to figure out how to fill the back-half of their rotation. If Nicasio can continue to develop, there is no reason to think he can't be the answer. The development has to progress quickly, however. If it doesn't, expect 2014 to be a mirror image of 2013.

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