So far, it looks like there’s two big differences in Nova’s game. First of all, he’s showing more command of his pitches, and that’s getting him ahead early in the counts. Not that he had control problems before, per se, but rather than just throwing pitches for strikes now, he’s throwing pitches with good late movement in the zone that hitters aren’t doing anything with other than getting into a hole. His ability to throw his curveball for strikes has been particularly helpful thus far.
Secondly, Nova is throwing his breaking pitches with a lot more snap this year, particularly when he gets ahead of batters, and they’ve become his go to pitches when he wants to put a hitter away. That’s what helped him record five swinging strikeouts in Baltimore, and what he went to again right away last night, quickly dispatching Erik Aybar with a 1-2 curveball in the dirt to open the game. Even more impressive is his ability to adapt his approach during an at bat. When Nova again tried to put Torii Hunter away with the same pitch in the same count in the same inning, Hunter appeared to be sitting on the pitch, and let it go by for a ball to even the count at 2-2. Undeterred, Nova came back with a beautiful backdoor sinker that froze Hunter and got a forceful called strike three from home plate umpire Jim Joyce to end the inning.
While I’ve locked Nova a lot since at least last spring, I’ve also generally felt that, for as useful as he was, he was still mostly a mid-rotation, or even back end of the staff, caliber pitchers. However, so far this year he’s showing some improved stuff, an impressive arsenal of pitches he’s willing to use in a variety of counts and situations, a mature, meticulous approach on the mound, and quite a bit of confidence in his abilities. That last bit might be particularly important, and was on display last night when, after Howie Kendrick tripled on a ball off the wall in center field, Albert Pujols came to the plate with a chance to plate an early run with an out. It would be easy for a young pitcher who had just given up a long fly ball on a hanging breaking ball to shy away from one of the greatest hitters in the history of the game, but Nova came right after Pujols, throwing a first pitch curveball in the dirt than Albert whiffed at, then coming right inside with a fastball that jammed Pujols and got him to line out to Derek Jeter while keeping Kendrick at third with two outs. It might seem like a little thing in the grand scheme of things, but that sequence took a lot of guts to throw given the hitter and the circumstances, and especially so with the ongoing battle for the last rotation spot as the arrival of Andy Pettitte and Michael Pineda looms over the staff.
It’s still only two games, but Nova has been extremely impressive in the regular season so far, and if he continues to pitch with this confidence and execution, the Yankees may really have a good one on their hands.