From the Minor League Ball mailbag:
"I traded Marlins prospect Justin Nicolino over the winter to my friend in a fantasy league because Nicolino didn't strike many people out in the minors and I was worried he wouldn't hold up in the majors. But then he comes up and looks great in his first start and my friend think she ripped me off. Is she right?"----JK, Santa Ana, California
Nicolino will make his second major league start tonight against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Indeed, his first start went well: seven shutout innings against the Cincinnati Reds, four hits, two walks, two strikeouts.
Ah, yes, the strikeouts. Your pre-season concern about Nicolino's paltry whiff totals was well-taken but it is also true that the results have generally been positive despite the lack of dominance. Here is the comment on him in the 2015 Baseball Prospect Book:
Justin Nicolino led the Southern League in ERA last year which is, like, really good and stuff. He never walks anyone, which is also very cool. The problem here is the extremely low strikeout rate. Scouting reports have not changed much: 88-92 on the fastball, impressive change-up, solid curveball which will sometimes flatten out but usually works well enough. Exceptionally good control is his best asset and it was enough for him to win in Double-A despite his general hittability and lack of whiff dominance.
Does anyone here remember a Twins pitcher by the name of Allan Anderson back in the late 80s? He had a similar profile and he made it work well enough to win 16 games in 1988 and lead the American League in ERA. He won 17 more in 1989 then fell apart as the league caught up to him. Something similar might happen with Nicolino, short-term success then a quick fall if he can’t make adjustments. That’s a cautionary mark, but gradewise we will hold with a Grade B-; after all, he did have a good season and the scouting reports haven’t changed. I just wish there were more strikeouts.
Nicolino's first big league start backed up the pre-season scouting report: his fastball was clocked between 87 and 92 MPH against the Reds, averaging 89.9. He mixed in a slider in the 80s, a change-up in the low-80s, and a curve in the 70s, all very much in line with minor league reports. He commanded everything well as usual, and also as usual he didn't strike many hitters out.
Before his promotion he had 45 strikeouts and 21 walks in 78 innings in Triple-A, with 85 hits allowed. He was hittable and not dominant in general but he kept the ERA low at 2.87, impressive anywhere but especially in the PCL. However, his FIP was much higher than the ERA at 4.51. Essentially the individual components didn't add up to the overall results, which has been his theme for some time.
Ultimately the question is this: can he keep making this work on the major league level?
Historically, the odds aren't great. Pitchers with strikeout rates this low seldom remain successful for long. Some can make it work for a year or two, as Allan Anderson did, then fall apart.
Occasionally, however, someone makes adjustments and has long-term success, with Mark Buehrle being a recent example. His strikeout rates early in his career were very low but his pitchability proved strong enough to compensate and he's won 206 games as a result.
Nicolino has been compared to Buehrle by some sources and that would be the maximal outcome. It's isn't impossible. But it isn't exactly likely, either, and there are a lot more Allan Andersons in baseball history than Mark Buehrles.
It is hard to know whether you really got ripped off or not without more information about the trade, but don't beat yourself up too much. Some pitchers are able to swim against the tide of history and reach the shore of success. We won't know if NIcolino is among them for at least a few more years.