Blue Jays's Nicolino Is On The Fast Track
Pitchers who are just 19 years old aren't supposed to be able to do this.
They're not supposed to have their name plastered at the top of the league leaderboard. They're not supposed to show the command and control expected of a third- or fourth-year player. They're not supposed to dominate batters with years of college and pro experience.
But Vancouver lefthander Justin Nicolino apparently hasn't gotten that memo.
When the Blue Jays selected Nicolino in the second round (80th overall) of the 2010 draft out of University High in Orlando, it was higher than most expected him to go—including Nicolino himself.
"I got called earlier than I thought I was going to," Nicolino says. "I was projected to go in the fourth to the sixth round and I ended up in the second. I had my (bonus) number set . . . and (the Blue Jays) gave me what I wanted. The end result was playing professional baseball and I don't have any regrets about it."
Nor should he. Until a recent promotion to low Class A Lansing meant he fell below the innings pitched limit to qualify, Nicolino was leading the short-season Northwest League in ERA (1.03) and WHIP (0.75). He would rank even higher on the leaderboards if not for tight pitch limits.
In five of his 12 outings for Lansing this season, Nicolino has completed five innings while yielding one hit or less before being removed from the game.
"At first it was frustrating . . . but (the Blue Jays) have a vision for me," he said. "Seeing my first year and how it's playing out, I'm going to do whatever they ask me to do. I understand that they're just looking out for my best interest."
A Dominating Debut
Opposing Northwest League clubs likely support the Blue Jays' plan of limiting the toughest starter to hit in the league. In 52 innings with the Canadians, Nicolino had surrendered 28 hits while posting a .156 opponent average. Against righthanded hitters, that number drops to .139. Nicolino has been able to routinely sit down righties because his best secondary offering is his changeup, a pitch that baffles opposite-handed hitters.
"(Justin's changeup) is really good. He throws it with great arm speed and it comes from the same slot, the same delivery, with good late life," Blue Jays minor league pitching coordinator Dane Johnson said. "But everything comes off the fastball and he understands that at his young age."
Fastball command, especially to the inside of the plate against righties, has been a big part of Vancouver pitching coach Jim Czajkowski's work with Nicolino this year.
"I've stressed that a lot because it's usually the toughest spot to get the fastball to, but he seems to stick it in there," Czajkowski said.
Nicolino said he can see the progress with his fastball command. "I feel like I grew this summer because I'm throwing my fastball to both sides of the plate as well as up and down," he said. "I'm able to go through five innings just establishing my fastball because I'm not afraid to pitch in to guys."
Working to the inner half of the plate can be a frightening prospect, especially for pitchers who have felt the wrath of good players with metal bats. Nicolino, however, hasn't been given any reason to be scared this year; he has surrendered no home runs with the Canadians.
Nicolino is relishing the success he has experienced early in his career because, while it was something he hoped for, it wasn't something that he expected.
"I thought I'd come up here, struggle a bit and have to find myself going through it," he said. "It really did take me by surprise, but I've been kind of lucky all year to have my three pitches every outing."
For Czajkowski, Nicolino's great results have made it tough to get a read on the southpaw's resiliency.
"To find out about the character of a guy, you have to see him struggle and see how he reacts to those times of struggle," he said. "For most guys, it's one or two games in a row. For Justin, it's maybe two or three hitters. Just a slight five, six pitches and then he works his way back into it. He hasn't had too many times when he's failed."
The key to Nicolino's summer has been a simple one: consistent mechanics translate into consistent results. Establishing that basic pitching foundation has been a focus.
"I just want to keep mastering my delivery, learning my mechanics and staying in them the whole year and into next year," he said.
"When he starts to get out of whack mechanically," Czajkowski said, "he'll go to his changeup because that kind of puts everything back into place. It's a great pitch in those situations because hitters see a wild pitcher and think he'll throw more fastballs, then he comes in with more changeups and it really throws them off balance."
Czajkowski says that Nicolino has been "locked in" for most of the season, throwing all three of his pitches for strikes. The control shows up in the box scores: Nicolino hadn't walked more than one batter in any game since July 4, and in the seven-game stretch since, he had handed out just four free passes while striking out 38.
It has seemingly come easy to Nicolino, but his work away from the mound has a lot to do with his success on it.
"It's those days between your starts, the work you put in there that carries over into the day that you pitch," he said. "That's what I've been doing the whole year and that's the routine that I've established for myself."
"How he goes about his side work, how he takes care of his throwing program," Czajkowski said. "When he gets to business he's just a pleasure to watch."
Nicolino has certainly made his pitching coach's job a little less stressful and more interesting, as well as Dane Johnson's.
"Justin's done a great job stepping into the program and doing what we've asked of him," Johnson said. "It's exciting to see how he's throwing the ball right now, taking the positives from what he does one day and rolling it into the next outing. He's an advanced, three-pitch kid who still has the ability to fill out. With his command, control and poise . . . it's a very exciting package."