Ivan the Terrible? Not so fast…

Nova’s peripherals are strong.

After putting up an impressive 2.7 WAR as a rookie in 2011, Ivan Nova has been plagued by the long ball thus far in 2012 and has seen his ERA inflate from 3.70 to 4.53. After getting tagged for 9 ER in his last start, there has been concern about the amount of home runs allowed and his overall performance going forward. Given his minor league track record and his performance, it’s easy to write off Nova’s rookie season as a fluke. But, there are a few legitimate reasons to believe that he’ll turn it around.

Never a big prospect, Nova was overshadowed by guys like Andrew Brackman, Dellin Betances, Jeremy Bleich, and Zach McAllister while working his way up through the Yankee’s farm system. While Nova never really struggled at any of his stops in the minors, he was far from dominant. Nova just wasn’t striking people out and was widely considered to be a very fringy prospect. Even the Yankees didn’t think much of him as they left him unprotected in the rule 5 draft before the 2009 season and he was snatched up by the Padres. At the time, Baseball America wrote: “Tall 21-year-old has flashed three plus pitches at times but lacks consistency and deception.” Nova struggled in spring training for the Padres and was returned to the Yankees. Nova ended 2009 in AAA, but continued his mediocrity posting a 4.08 FIP and 5.10 ERA.

In 2010, Nova experienced a breakout. In 23 AAA starts, he saw his K/9 jump up to a career high 7.14 and he posted an ERA of 2.86. This earned him his first taste of the major leagues where he was serviceable in 42 IP. In 2011, he received 27 starts in the Yankees rotation and certainly did not disappoint. He still wasn’t striking guys out (5.33 K/9), but he wasn’t walking many either (3.10 BB/9) and he induced his fair share of ground balls (52.7%). His rookie year performance was good for an impressive 3.70 ERA and a respectable 2.7 WAR.

2012 has been a much different season for Ivan Nova. He’s striking out more guys than ever before (8.05 K/9), but he’s also not inducing grounders like he used to. His GB% is down to 46.1% which is only slightly above the league average. Also his HR/9 has doubled from 0.71 to 1.42

Given his minor league track record, it seems like his strikeouts may be a fluke and there’s a very good chance his K/9 won’t stay above 8 for long. However, there have been some changes in Nova’s game that suggest the new found K’s are for real:

Pitch Selection: Nova seems to be relying a bit less on his fastball and more on his put-away pitch: the slider. He has thrown 54% fastballs this year compared to 61% in 2011. His slider usage has also increased from 11% to 15%. This change in pitch selection may not seem like a big deal, until you consider how often batters have whiffed on his slider. 43% of plate appearances ending in a slider have resulted in a strikeout. This is essentially the same as his career rate of 41%. As a frame of reference, his fastball rate was 8% this year and 6% over his career.

Better Stuff: While the increased slider usage certainly accounts for some of the strikeouts, all of Nova’s pitches have improved in terms of “stuff”. PITCH F/x shows increases in velocity and movement across the board from 2011 to 2012. These would certainly be good explanations for the increased strikeouts.

The added strikeouts are nice, but they are more than offset by the HR’s Nova’s allowed so far. While he is allowing more fly balls, a lot of his homers can be attributed to his HR/FB which sits at 15.1%. This is higher than the league average of 11.4% and much higher than his 2011 rate of 8.4%. Realistically, his true HR/FB is probably somewhere between the 8.4% and 15.1% he’s put up the last two years. Because of his HR/FB%, his 2012 xFIP is 3.94 which is much better than his ERA (4.53) and FIP (4.45). SIERA, which is arguably the most accurate of ERA estimators, loves Nova even more and pegs him at 3.84.

Despite his uninspiring ERA and FIP, Nova looks like an improved pitcher from last year. For whatever reason, his stuff has gotten a bit better and that has parlayed into more strikeouts. It’s not clear why he is allowing more fly balls and fewer groundouts, and the sample size is too small to try to pinpoint particular pitches responsible for the change. The change in batted ball types likely contributes to his increase in home runs allowed. However, it seems like it’s mostly due to luck on fly balls. He got a little lucky in 2011 and hasn’t been so lucky in 2012. It appears that Nova also believes bad luck as played a role and seems to still have his confidence which is always a concern with a struggling young pitcher. It’s also worth noting that he has done a markedly better job of keeping the ball in the park with men on base (1.43 HR/9 vs. 0.51 HR/9). If he can somehow continue to avoid multi-run homeruns, he could potentially outperform his peripherals making him even more valuable. Time will tell whether his strikeouts will continue and if he’ll be able to keep the ball in the park, but there is reason to believe that he’ll be able to do both and be a 3-4 WAR pitcher going forward. I would certainly take the under on ZiPS’s projected 4.70 ERA over the rest of the season.

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

About Chris

Chris works in economic development by day, but spends most of his nights thinking about baseball. He writes for Pinstripe Pundits, and is an occasional user of the twitter machine: @_chris_mitchell
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