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Starter or reliever? That is the question that looms with two of the most electric arms in the Colorado Rockies system.
With Juan Nicasio it has long been a question of whether or not his secondary pitches could become as effective as his fastball. This question was modified ever so slighty when Nicasio had two solid chunks of starts this summer, in which it looked like he might be able to live essentially on one pitch, a sinking fastball, and sprinkle in the occasional slider or change-up.
Is it possible for Nicasio to be this type of starter? Maybe, as some of those starts showed. Take, for example, his seven innings of shutout baseball against the Los Angeles Dodgers on July 12th in which he walked only one hitter. Or look at his seven shutout innings against the Marlins in a tough July 25th loss: in that game he struck out nine, induced 10 ground-ball outs at home, and walked only one batter. As a 4th or 5th starter, the Rockies would happily take those contributions, whether it be with a one-pitch or a three-pitch arsenal.
The rub? Fastball command, of course. And like Jhoulys Chacin and Ubaldo Jimenez before him, that stands as the lone talking point from night to night when we consider Nicasio’s chances for success. If Nicasio does not command his fastball, he renders the effectiveness of his “sink” less meaningful and makes it easy for opponents to sit on his off-speed pitches.
Right now the Rockies are trying to assess if Nicasio, with the limitations of his arsenal and his ever-so-slim margin for error, can still be a fit for the starting rotation. Lately the data has been disastrous, with yesterday’s seven-run shellacking coming on the heels of an eight-run outing. In a vacuum, his last two starts make Roy Oswalt‘s efforts this season look downright heroic.
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Could his wildness be an asset in the bullpen if he was cranking his fastball up into the mid-90s? Perhaps, but considering his woeful 6.30 ERA in the first inning in 2013, his struggles are not necessarily a matter of hitters adjusting the second time through the lineup. They are hitting him right away, so when he’s off he is off from the start. Changing Nicasio’s role might help, and it still very well might be that it is worth exploring a spot in the bullpen for the young righty, but ultimately this is going to come down to his ability to throw strikes.
A similar question lingers for Chad Bettis, whose 2013 audition with the Rockies has already changed course to the bullpen. After starting eight games with mixed results, he has now been used as a reliever five times. Until yesterday you could argue that experiment was going pretty well, but then he was charged with five earned runs in 0.1 innings of work in the team’s 13-9 loss to the Diamondbacks.
Bettis strikes guys out, which is why the back of the bullpen seems like a logical fit. But hitters have had success against him in their first at-bat as well, batting a staggering .339 in those appearances. Like Nicasio, his bad starts have largely not been the result of batters adjusting and then roughing him up in the later innings. They are getting Bettis right away, and that is certainly what the Diamondbacks did yesterday when they saw him out of the bullpen.
Do these stats definitely mean that neither of these guys are better suited for the bullpen? Hardly. It is certainly more complicated than that, mainly because their approach would change from the first few innings of a game they started. And it is that different approach, after all, that makes us wonder if these two guys wouldn’t be better suited cutting it loose in one inning of work to take full advantage of their respective “plus” pitches.
It would be nice if there was more evidence to steer either of these guys one way or the other, but it would seem that it will take simple trial and error to find the best fits for Juan Nicasio and Chad Bettis. That process is underway with Bettis, and if Nicasio’s struggles continue as a starting pitcher, it might start with him as soon as Spring Training. For my part I believe that Nicasio belongs in the back of the rotation, with expectations tempered appropriately, and Bettis belongs in the bullpen. But we are a long ways from knowing anything definitive with either of these guys.
Such is the frustrating process when two of most the most promising pitchers in the organization are firmly in the “in-between” zone.