The D-backs’ depth chart at starting pitcher this spring was something to behold. Josh Collmenter and Jeremy Hellickson had spots lined up, and behind them there were some 10-12 other contenders. Some worked their way out of the competition, like Allen Webster, but when the music stopped, several pitchers who might have won a spot in other years like Robbie Ray ended up in other roles or places.

Two months later, the team’s decisions look pretty sound. Chase Anderson was projected to be the rotation’s best pitcher, and that’s exactly who he’s been. Rubby De La Rosa has provided plenty to dream on. Collmenter has been a slightly shakier version of the stalwart we expected. Archie Bradley dominated in his own strange way before struggling after his return from the DL. And hey, even Hellickson seems to have recovered some success and some value, as Jeff explored yesterday.

Lost among all of the rotation candidates in camp were two that the team may have given up on prematurely: Randall Delgado and Vidal Nuño. April of 2014 was so extreme a pitching situation that any rotation changes probably would have been justifiable. On paper, though, with just a year and a half’s worth of total starts (some of them good), it would have been as justifiable to give Delgado more rope to see if he could be a productive MLB starter. Nuño, on the other hand, seemed to have been filler when traded for in the Brandon McCarthy salary dump, and although he pitched especially well for the team in 2+ months last year, he just didn’t seem to fit the new front office’s vision for how to build a strong rotation for 2016 and 2017.

But both Delgado and Nuño have played key roles this season as the team has fought to keep the wheels from coming off, and that’s all the more impressive for Nuño, who has spent little time on the MLB roster. We knew long relief would be important this season; Jeff raised the possibility of needing three long relievers on The Pool Shot before the season started, and explored that with Daniel Hudson in mind. So far, though, the bullpen has thrown the equivalent of four extra entire games more than the average bullpen. D-backs relievers lead MLB in innings with 186, more than five innings ahead of the #2 Rangers.

There is a strong argument, then, that Delgado and Nuño are right where they need to be. But I’m not convinced that both are not among the top 150 starting candidates in baseball right now. Are they where they should be?

Randall Delgado: Rediscovering a Lost Slider

At FanGraphs, Randall Delgado looks like he’s been a bit lucky — his 82.8% left-on-base percentage is higher than his peripherals can support, and FIP thinks he’s been more of a 4.25 ERA type than his actual ERA, 3.42, would suggest. But while Delgado’s strikeout rate has dropped quite a bit from 9.97 K/9 to 7.86, his walk rate has also gone from a “this is a problem” 4.06 BB/9 to a “hey, this is pretty good” 2.73. He’s been stung by home runs a bit more than we would have expected. For a team dying for steady contributions, though, Delgado has been money — even with a mid-May rough patch in which he allowed runs in three consecutive appearances, he’s only bent, without breaking. Delgado still has not allowed more than 2 runs in any appearance this year (even with 4 HR), and he’s allowed runs in just 7 of his 21 appearances.

I took a look at Delgado’s repertoire and how it had changed in the majors as the season started in April, and the main takeaway was that Delgado could succeed as a long reliever — with the repertoire he used as a long reliever last year. Delgado has thrown five pitches in the majors: four-seam, sinker, change, slider, and curve. As a starter in 2013, he made heavy use of a sinker, with bad results. As a reliever in 2014, he backed off the sinker significantly — and did a whole lot better. Delgado’s sinker is vaguely the equivalent of a barrel-seeking missile. In 2014, opponents slugged a ridiculous .655 off the pitch, after .571 in 2013 when he relied on it as a starter. That’s pretty bad, and what was so strange about it is that Delgado’s four-seam has done tremendously well as fastballs go; in those two seasons, opponents slugged .388 and .386 off of the pitch, which is kind of amazing.

So far this year, Delgado has kept the sinker around, but hasn’t relied on it, thankfully. With efficiency such a glaring issue for the bullpen, one could have guessed that the team might look to have him throw it this year; ground ball outs are quick outs. Score one for the D-backs in not coaching him to stick with the pitch. He’s thrown it a bit more than last year — 13.88% of the time, up from 9.87% last year — and the slugging percentage for his two fastballs has more or less evened out (.500 for the four-seam, .556 for the sinker), at least one indication that the way he’s mixed them has been closer to optimal.

But Delgado is also throwing fewer fastballs overall — 49.67% of pitches, down from 63.35% last year. He still throws the occasional curve, and he’s kept his changeup right around the magic percentage for changeups, 20%. It’s the slider that has picked up the fastball slack.

This is a change that started in June 2014, nearly two months after Delgado was demoted to the bullpen. By mid-June, Delgado was mixing in the slider around 15% of the time. This year, it’s up to 23.86%. Before then, Delgado had thrown just 14 total sliders in the majors — all in 2011, soon after his original call up.

If you’ve confused the slider with Delgado’s curveball at times this year, you’re probably not alone. On average, they’ve been just 3 mph apart in terms of release velocity, 79 mph for the curve and 82 mph for the slider. Unlike Delgado’s other pitches, which have arm-side run, his breaking balls move toward his glove side — and this year, he’s picked up some serious movement on his slider, 4.79 inches on average according to Brooks Baseball, not a far cry from the 6.14 inches of movement on his curveball. The main difference is vertical movement, where there is 3.5 inches of separation, the curveball tumbling more.

So far this season, Delgado’s slider has been the key to his success, with opponents slugging just .261 off the pitch. That’s over 100 points of slugging better than his next-best pitch, his changeup, and 239-295 points of slugging better than his other three pitches. The fact that we have something on which to pin rediscovered success is reason for optimism that Delgado can keep up this level of success.

It should also rekindle rotation thoughts. Delgado’s curveball has never been that good, even though he had some good results with is last year when deploying it infrequently. As a starter, Delgado had to use his sinker in the past, because without it and with a changeup capped around 20% usage, a three-pitch version of Delgado as a starter used to be four-seam, change and mediocre curve. But that may no longer be the case. If Delgado’s slider can take the place of his sinker, a starter version of him would be four-seam (surprisingly good over his whole career), change (very good over his whole career), and now this apparently very good slider. Delgado has mixed in his sinker and curve to help get by in the majors whenever he’s needed them. With the slider, he may no longer need them. If I’m another MLB club, I’d have to start to wonder if Delgado could be more valuable to me than he may be to the D-backs.

Vidal Nuño’s Failure-Free D-backs Résumé

I do believe that Nuño was originally filler in the McCarthy salary dump, a way to hold down a rotation spot as the end of the 2014 season played out. At that time, the D-backs didn’t have the boatload of experiments to try, and his overall ERA for 2014 (4.56) did end right around where his FIP that year (4.51) and in 2013 (4.50) would have guessed. Even before trades and signings brought more experiments into the fold over the offseason in Ray, Webster, RDLR and Yoan Lopez, it was clear, though, that options would be available for the rotation come April — which is part of why I thought at the time of the trade that Nuño was about the least useful kind of return on McCarthy that the D-backs could have acquired.

All Nuño has done since then is provide average or better pitching for the D-backs. In his 83.2 innings for the club last year, Nuño tallied a 3.76 ERA backed by a 1.09 WHIP. In 8 starts for Triple-A Reno this year, he has a 3.38 ERA with a 1.14 WHIP. And in just three appearances with the big club this year, Nuño has a 1.88 ERA and 1.05 WHIP.

The contributions this season have been all the more impressive in that two of the three appearances were essentially starts, but with no advanced notice — he’s been exactly the right man in the right place at the right time. Collmenter, you may recall, is in the “steady contributor” role in the rotation, and seemingly minutes after Nuño was first returned to the majors this year, Collmenter had his epic 1.1 inning, 9 ER implosion. The game was lost early and quickly, but Nuño was flat-out excellent, throwing 6.2 innings with 8 strikeouts, 7 hits and 2 walks.

When Enrique Burgos went on the DL last week, it was again Vidal On The Spot when Archie Bradley lasted just 3.2 innings. On the day of his call up, Nuño had 5 strikeouts and just 1 hit in 2.1 innings. And although he gave up a walkoff home run to end the epic 17-inning Brewers game on Sunday, that was only after 5+ innings of outstanding 2-hit, 3-walk, 6-strikeout work.

The fact that Nuño was even available on Sunday was a huge stroke of luck — Randall Delgado was unavailable after being needed for 3 innings the day before, and the normal procedure for extremely long extra-inning games — pitching the next day’s starter — would have been an extremely uncomfortable fit for the D-backs, who had every reason to not want to mess with Bradley’s efforts to get right. Even if you kept Nuño on the roster all season, you’d be lucky to have him rested just the right way when these opportunities arose. After all, it could have been he and not Delgado in relief the day before, and I doubt very much that the team would have tried to use Delgado for six innings on Sunday.

The two pitchers do have similarities, however. Nuño has the same five-pitch repertoire: four-seam, sinker, change, slider, curve. He doesn’t throw the change as much and never has, and his curveball is good enough to use 10%-15% of the time. But like Delgado, Nuño has de-emphasized his sinker. And even stranger — Nuño used to throw his slider about as often as Delgado has this season, but in these 14.1 innings this season he’s thrown the slider 40% of the time. It’s only 92 pitches. But even combining two types, he’s only thrown 84 fastballs. It’s hard to spike like that on accident.

Whatever Nuño is doing, it’s working. All five of his pitches have whiff rates over 25% — at least a quarter of the time for each pitch, when a batter swings, he misses. And no pitch has done nearly as well as Nuño’s slider, which currently sports a .050 (!!) slugging percentage against. Basically, only one batter collected a hit off of the slider… and it was a single.

I’m a little more bearish on Nuño’s slider stock than I am on Delgado’s pitch, since Nuño has thrown many more in the majors. It’s still an excellent pitch — probably Nuño’s best — but it would be surprising if the increased usage didn’t come with a cost at some point, especially if opposing teams catch on.

Nonetheless, it’s clear that Nuño has a lot to offer. Right now, he’s the equivalent of one of the best seventh starters in baseball, a very helpful asset that the D-backs probably wouldn’t favor over running an extra experiment (say, installing Robbie Ray) if there was a hole to fill in the MLB rotation for an extended period of time. Whether that means he may be more valuable in trade than on the roster is a tough question, one which only the marketplace could answer. Still, if there were a contender in July that had, say, two rotation holes crop up at the same time — teams could do a lot worse than Nuño, who seems to have not only a high floor but the potential for some #3 starter type success.


What we’re seeing in Delgado and Nuño so far this year is some of the best spackle the D-backs could reasonably hope for — and it’s come at a time when the pitching wall is almost as much spackle as it is drywall. You could imagine a scenario here where struggles from Collmenter and Hellickson and this run of short outings from Bradley could have meant falling completely out of the playoff race. If increased reliance on sliders from both pitchers continues to translate into success, this could be a different situation come July or August. As crowded as the rotation picture is for the D-backs in the immediate and extended future, both pitchers have enough potential to change the conversation all on their own.

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