Don’t Give Up on Ivan Nova

After a very successful 2011 rookie campaign, Ivan Nova took a major step back in 2012. His ERA ballooned from 3.70 to 5.02 which was mostly a result of opposing hitters belting homers off of him. Nova was especially bad late in the year and was subsequently passed over for his last start of the season and left off the playoff roster. On August 3rd, I pointed out that Nova had been getting unlucky and would emerge as a solid pitcher. Unfortunately, he proceeded to post a 6.45 ERA for the remainder of the season. Nonetheless, I still believe in Nova. His dismal 2012 certainly left a bad taste in people’s mouths, but there’s much reason to believe he’ll right the ship in 2013.

There were 2 major differences between Nova’s 2011 season and his 2012 season: strikeouts and home runs. Although his strikeouts trended in the right direction, his home runs certainly did not. First, let’s look at the strikeouts.

Ivan  Nova
Super Nova in 2013?

In his 6 years in the Yankees minor league system, Nova was nothing close to a strikeout pitcher. When he made it to the majors in 2010, he held a career minor-league strikeout rate of just 16.6%. Nova always had plus stuff, but the biggest knock on him was always a lack of deception in his delivery. Because of this, he was never really considered to be much of a prospect. Upon breaking into the majors, Nova continued to post middling strikeout numbers, only striking out 14% of the batters he faced in 2010 and 2011. Last season, his K% spiked to 20.5%. Generally speaking, if a pitcher can’t fool minor leaguers, there’s little reason to believe he’ll fare any better against big leaguers. So it’s a little hard to buy Nova’s 2012 strikeouts at first glance.

But there’s one big reason to believe his strikeouts are sustainable: the slider.

In spring training of 2011, with the help of Billy Connors and Larry Rothschild, Nova altered his cutter to become more of a slider. The pitch was effective in 2011, but Nova didn’t didn’t really start to rely on it until 2012—especially with 2 strikes. This is especially important considering batters swung and missed almost a quarter of the time Nova threw his slider/cutter hybrid… slutter?

Year Slider% Slider Whiff% Slider% with 2 Strikes Slider Whiff% with 2 Strikes 3rd Strike Sliders
2011 4% 21% 11% 24% 15
2012 12% 20% 29% 23% 50

Whatever you want to call it, the pitch has clearly emerged as the put-away pitch he lacked in the minors. So it seems like the strikeouts are here to stay. But what about the homeruns?

According to PitchFX, only 3 of Nova’s 28 homers came off of sliders. So it doesn’t appear the homeruns were a side-effect of the slider usage. Most of the homeruns came off of Nova’s fastball (14) and changeup (6). The 6 homers off of the changeup are pretty remarkable considering he only threw 96 changeups all year– 40 of which were called balls. Looking at his pitch locations, it doesn’t look like Nova had much control with the changeup. He clearly needs to either work on his change or scrap it altogether.

Nova posted a terrible 16.6% HR/FB rate last year compared to an excellent 8.4% in 2011. Most likely, Nova got lucky on a few flyballs in 2011 and was just as unlucky in 2012. I’d bet he’ll fall somewhere in between in 2013. He’ll still allow his share of homers, but should do so at a more manageable rate going forward.

Despite his ugly ERA, SIERA estimated his ERA should have been 3.84. Most of this discrepancy is due to his brutal HR/FB rate. It’s pretty clear that if he can keep the ball in the park, he could be a very good pitcher now that he can strike guys out. Nova’s currently slated to battle David Phelps for the 5th rotation spot this spring. Realistically speaking though, there’s a good chance one of the Yankees’ starters goes down with injury before long. So most likely, Nova will spend most if not all of next year in the rotation (if healthy of course) and will get plenty of opportunity to prove that 2012 was a fluke.

Photo by Keith Allison [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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