When the Pittsburgh Pirates acquired Kyle Nicolas from the Miami Marlins in the Jacob Stallings trade, it had appeared they were getting a hard-throwing righty that was likely destined for a bullpen role.
Outside of one rough outing that still has some of the numbers inflated, that has looked further from the truth, as Nicolas has emerged as one of the better starting pitchers in the Pirates’ system.
Originally drafted 61st overall in 2020 out of Ball State, Nicolas was sandwiched in between a couple of Pirates draft picks, Jared Jones at 44 and Nick Garcia going 79th. MLB Pipeline had them even closer in their pre-draft rankings with Jones ranking 55th, Nicolas 60th, and Garcia 70th.
Control was always the concern with Nicolas, and you saw a lot of that last year in the Marlins system, especially after getting moved up to Double-A. In 39 1/3 innings, Nicolas walked 15% of the batters he faced at Pensacola.
It’s been a different pitcher on the mound for Nicolas, who has begun the season with the Altoona Curve. If not for Mike Burrows’ great start to the season, we are probably talking about Nicolas being the top performing pitcher in the system.
In six starts this season, Nicolas has posted a 3.65 ERA, walking eight and striking out 27 in 24 1/3 innings. He’s struck 27.5% of the batters he’s faced, while limiting the walk rate to 8.2%.
Looking even deeper into his season, when you take out his April 23 start against New Hampshire (2 IP, 9 H, 8 ER, BB, K), the numbers really jump off the page. With that start removed, Nicolas has an 0.79 ERA, allowing just two runs in the other five starts that span 22 2/3 innings. His strikeout rate jumps to 31%, and opponents are batting just .108 against him.
“He’s had honestly just one bad inning,” Altoona manager Kieran Mattison told Pirates Prospects. “Outside of that, he’s been good. He fills up the zone, and gives us a chance to compete each time he goes out. It’s been fun to watch Nicolas go out and grow with each outing.”
Nicolas has done a great job of mixing pitches and changing the eye level of batters. While he doesn’t use his changeup much, he uses his fastball along with a curve and slider to keep batters off balance.
While the curve isn’t his best pitch, when it’s at the same eye level as his fastball, it becomes much more of an effective pitch than on its own.
One of my favorite things to see from pitching prospects is working backwards. In the first clip, Nicolas starts with a couple of curveballs before inducing a ground ball to get the out. The next he alternates between the two pitches, before getting very lucky with leaving a fastball a little too much over on the plate, but the batter isn’t able to fully capitalize and just flies out.
The vision on the last two clips weren’t the best, but it was the final two pitches of them that really illustrates his approach. Up ahead in the count 1-2, Nicolas fires a fastball up out of the zone, before having a curveball being broken back into the zone that freezes the batter.
It was a crucial at-bat as well, with two-outs in the first inning with the bases loaded.
Next up is his fastball/slider combination, with an added twist in the video.
The first clips is a beautiful example of him using both sides of the plate to set up his strikeout. He goes with a fastball and slider away to start the at bat, going 1-1. He brings that fastball on the inside part of the plate before getting him with a slider away for the strikeout.
Part of setting up the slider, the next clip doesn’t have him throwing the pitch but is all fastballs. He’s able to get a strikeout using the fastball exclusively which helps set up the combo later in the game.
That’s followed up with a Nicolas throwing underneath the hands of the left-handed hitter, aiming for the back-foot on his sliders to finish off the at-bat.
Nicolas has shown some signs of the control issues he had last year, but has been mostly efficient the entire year. It took him 46 pitches to get through four perfect innings against Richmond on Easter Sunday.
With Quinn Priester still working his way back to the mound, it has allowed some of the other prospects on Altoona to really shine through. The ability from Nicolas to mix his pitches all over the strike zone has transformed him from a potential bullpen arm to one of the more advanced pitching prospects in the system.