With all the bad news about injuries, some of the positives of Spring Training have been overlooked. We're only a few weeks into the pre-season, but the team's young pitchers have looked incredible. Some of the stand outs include David Phelps(who's given the team 14.0 innings with 10 hits and 1 run), Ivan Nova (5.0 innings with 4 hits and 1 run), and Jose Ramirez (9.0 innings with 4 hits and no runs). The first two have been competing for a starting position this March, and Jose Ramriez is a rising Yankee prospect, so early success wasn't exactly unexpected. What's come as a surprise is Vidal Nuno, who's pitched 11.1 innings, given up 4 hits, 1 run, 3 walks, and 15 strike outs.
Despite the obscurity, Nuno has been very successful in the minor leagues. Just two years ago, the Yankees took a flyer on the Independent League pitcher at the age of 23. In 2011, he put up a 1.24 FIP in Low-A, than a 2.80 FIP in Charleston. In 2012, he was promoted to High-A, where he pitched just 24.1 innings with a 2.99 FIP, before being promoted to Trenton. In Double-A, he continued striking out batters 21.5% of the time, kept his BB% low at 5.8%, and managed a 2.45 ERA and 3.35 FIP. So for those new to Nuno, you're probably asking why you've never heard of him.
He's perceived as old, especially for the competition that he dominated. His 114.0 innings in Double-A came at the age of 24, which would have been far more impressive if he were a few years younger. Still, Nuno was not facing teenagers in Trenton, and he held himself well in the early promotion. The left-hander is also considered small, at 5 foot 11 inches, Nuno is far from the Randy Johnson type of southpaw. He typically sits in the high-80's and can hit the 90's with his fastball. An older, short, finesse pitcher with success in Double-A is easy to ignore.
What's changed for Nuno is that he's continued to dominate despite the competition increasing. When he was succeeding in Trenton, many wondered if he was overlooked. Now that he's striking out big league hitters in Spring Training, people are finally starting to get excited.
Nuno's 15 strike outs in 11.1 innings have come against some very big names. The complete list includes Nick Markakis, Matt Wieters, Chris Davis, Conor Jackson, Manny Machado, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Darin Ruf, Tyson Gillies, Travis Hafner, Melky Mesa, Luke Murton, Kevin Youkilis, Colby Rasmus, and Ryan Schimpf. Most of these names are major league players, and many considered star players. Keep in mind, on this list, 7 of the 15 batters are right-handed.
Going back to the perception of Nuno, we've been led to believe that his age, size, and velocity should be enough to overlook the success he saw in 2012. But to put his age in perspective, in his short Spring Training, he's been far more impressive than even the best young pitchers in camp. He's younger than David Phelps and Ivan Nova, and only a month older than Adam Warren. His age is somewhat overblown. As I see it, if another 24 year old in Trenton, Dellin Betances, had put up the same gaudy numbers as Nuno, I'm sure we'd see Betances make a return to top Yankee prospect lists.
Nuno has found a way to make his size and velocity work. He uses a lower 3/4 arm slot that appears to put a large amount of sink on his fastball. At 87-88 miles per hour, the fastball hardly sounds strong, but he can locate it extremely well. His breaking pitches include a curveball and a changeup, both of which have major league players looking like fools over the last few weeks. The strength of these two pitches is why Nuno can be so successful with his mediocre velocity. As we see in LOOGY's, plenty of soft tossing left-handers can succeed against left-handed hitters simply due to handedness. Nuno's success against lefties is similar, but what makes him stand out overall are his strike out pitches. His strong changeup and curveball (which some have called a slurve or slider) appear very effective against right-handed hitters.
In the end, he succeeds because he throws strikes. According to MLB.com, in his three starts against non-WBC teams, 49 of his 58 pitches were strikes. He did this by locating his fastball on the corners, by effectively pitching backwards, and generating poor contact. If we had all three of these factors and was throwing in the low-to-mid 90's, he'd have much more media/blog coverage.
When batters start seeing the ball better, Nuno will start getting hit harder, but at the moment, he's not being hit at all. Fans need to start considering him a prospect, as he's emerged as someone to keep an eye on this March.