Name: Sean Nolin
Height/Weight: 6’4’’, 230
How Acquired: Acquired from the Toronto Blue Jays along with Kendall Graveman, Brett Lawrie and Franklin Barreto in exchange for Josh Donaldson
There isn’t any sugarcoating it – the 2015 season was a frustrating one for Sean Nolin. Although he put up good numbers in Triple-A and finished the year in the big leagues, Nolin was never at full strength on the mound.
Nolin was one of three prospects the A’s acquired along with veteran Brett Lawrie in the Josh Donaldson trade before the 2015 season. Nolin was expected to be part of the A’s 2015 starting rotation after putting together an impressive 2014 season in Triple-A with the Blue Jays and following that up with a strong showing at the 2014 Arizona Fall League.
During that AFL stint, Nolin’s fastball sat consistently in the 91-94 MPH range and he showed a promising breaking ball and a good change-up. The A’s liked Nolin’s starter’s build and his ability to throw strikes.
Sean Nolin stats
Unfortunately, the A’s never saw the AFL Nolin last season. The left-hander had surgery to repair a sports hernia during the off-season and he wasn’t fully recovered at the start of spring training. He didn’t make his debut until the end of April, when he was sent to Triple-A Nashville on a rehab assignment. Nolin admits that he tried to rush back from the hernia surgery, which can often be a three-month recovery for athletes.
Nolin settled into the Sounds’ rotation in May, and he was very effective at the outset. In six outings in May, he posted a 1.08 ERA with 15 strike-outs in 16.2 innings. Despite those numbers, Nolin wasn’t pitching like himself. His velocity was down considerably, regularly sitting in the 83-87 MPH range. He wasn’t getting any drive with his legs and he was relying more on fooling hitters than beating them with his stuff.
On June 4, Nolin landed on the DL, missing one start. He then slogged through a mediocre June, posting a 4.24 ERA and an 11:9 K:BB in 17 innings. On July 4, Nolin landed on the DL with left shoulder soreness, which was likely caused by his inability to drive with his lower half. He would spend the next six weeks on the disabled list.
Sean Nolin pitches in May 2015 (video by Chris Lockard)
Nolin returned to the mound in mid-August before making four starts for the Sounds. He showed some improvement with his velocity, although he still wasn’t where he had been in 2014. He posted a 2.63 ERA in 13.2 August innings, striking out 12 and walking two. That earned Nolin a spot in the A’s rotation for September.
Nolin pitched fairly well in his first three starts with the A’s, allowing six runs in 16.2 innings. However, he struggled badly in two starts against the Texas Rangers and San Francisco Giants before recovering to allow three runs in five innings in his final start of the season, which came against the Seattle Mariners. Nolin’s command was uncharacteristically shaky during his big league stint, as he walked 12 in 29 innings and allowed four homeruns.
During his big league stint, Nolin’s fastball sat mostly in the high-80s, touching 91. Hitters batted .367 off of his fastball, according to Pitch F/X data on Fangraphs. He also threw more change-ups than any other pitch, a sign that he was pitching backwards rather than using his aggressive approach.
Former A’s minor league pitching coordinator Garvin Alston believes Nolin’s injury issues caused the dip in velocity.
“I do think that him not being able to train and get himself in shape had a lot to do with his velocity not being where he was accustomed to,” Alston said. “This is a situation where he will be able to come in this year and come to camp hopefully in great shape and we’ll see the Sean Nolin that we were expecting that was in Toronto.”
The Nolin the A’s were expecting was a left-hander with a 91-94 fastball and an effective cutter that sits in the high-80s to go along with a good change-up and a developing slider. Nolin proved that he can survive against advanced hitters without his best stuff in 2015, which is a testament to his ability to out-think hitters. Still, it is clear that without his best fastball, he isn’t going to be able to be reliably effective in the big leagues every fifth day.
The A’s made several adjustments to their starting rotation this off-season, adding veterans Henderson Alvarez and Rich Hill and trading Jesse Chavez. Even with those additions, Nolin is expected to be one of the candidates for the A’s fifth starter spot this spring. He will need to show that he is back to full strength to get that opportunity to break camp with the big league team, however. Nolin is in his third option year, so the A’s will need to know what they have in the 26-year-old by the end of the season. [CORRECTION: Nolin is actually out of options, having used his third option year last season.]