Ivan Nova‘s last start was the consummate disaster start. After being pinned to a 5-0 lead in the bottom of the first, he proceeded to surrender seven runs to the Orioles, including a Chris Davis grand slam, to the Orioles en route to a big loss. After an up and down season, some wonder if Nova will pitch in the playoffs:
So, you see, we have a little drama. Tack on that Nova (10-5) has won only one game since June 17 and did not pitch beyond six innings in any of his July starts, and you can even begin to ponder if Nova’s position in the rotation will be secure when Andy Pettitte returns from the disabled list later in August, or September. And if you’re going to ponder September, well, then you might want to begin to think about who’ll start in October.
Given the team’s support of Nova over the last season and a half plus, I’d be pretty surprised if Nova didn’t start when Pettitte returns; I think we can all safely assume Freddy Garcia will be bumped for the veteran lefty. However, five starters won’t be needed come playoff time Pettitte, CC Sabathia, and Hiroki Kuroda will definitely be guaranteed rotation spots. That last spot is going to come down to Phil Hughes and Nova. To his credit, Nova is taking a calm approach to the playoff pitching query:
“If I’m going to pitch in the playoffs, I’m going to pitch in the playoffs,” Nova said. “I mean, look what happened last year. After a tough season, A.J. Burnett was pitching for us in the playoffs, in one of the biggest games, and he did a great job. I can’t put any more pressure on myself these next two months. I know I’ve had some bad moments lately. But I will have more good moments. If I pitch in the playoffs, I pitch in the playoffs.”
Nova, like always, displays confidence. He’s aware that he’s been so-so lately, but believes in himself to come through with more big moments. For a young guy, he shows some good perspective with that quote. It’s refreshing to see Nova take a mild approach to that question and not overreact in one direction or another. It’s all part of his maturation process. Ups and downs are inherent to that process and so is change. And if there’s one thing we can say about Ivan Nova in 2012, it’s that he’s changed since 2011.
As noted by TYA co-founder and editor emeritus Moshe Mandel, Nova’s turned into a different pitcher this year. Last year, he was a groundball guy who didn’t strike a lot of people out. This year, he’s 13th the American League in K/9. Despite that, he’s having a very weird season:
All-time, 100 IP+, 3 pitchers have had season with k/9>8, BB/9<3, HR/9>1.40, H/9>10. Shields 2010, Astacio 1999, Nova 2012.
What’s behind all these changes? Let’s take a look at his pitch data and see if we can find anything amiss there. Before we get to results, let’s look at the process: his pitch selection. In 2011, Nova was very fastball heavy. He wasn’t quite Bartolo Colon with his fastball tendencies, but he still threw it a majority of the time, 61%. That number has fallen a bit in 2012, down to 53%. He’s compensated by using his slider a bit more (16% to 13%) and his curveball a bit more as well (27% to 22%); his changeup usage, 4% both years, has stayed the same. There aren’t any wild differences here. As for the increase in slider usage, last year, we all touted Nova’s slider as something that could help propel him from a back-end/mid-rotation guy to a solid number two starter. He’s throwing it more, which should be a good thing. Still, Nova’s results have been inconsistent at best this year, so let’s see if the pitches can show us anything.
Generally, there are three things we want pitchers to do (aside from preventing runs, obviously). We want them to strike guys out, we want them to get groundballs (especially in Yankee Stadium), and we want them to keep the ball in the park. If you can do all three of those things, you’re a star pitcher. Even if you do just two of the three, you’re doing pretty well. In 2011, Nova did the latter two very well. His groundball rate was strong at 52.7% and his HR/FB% and HR/9 were solid at 8.4% and 0.71, though his strikeout numbers (5.33 K/9 and 13.9 K%) left something to be desired. This year, as noted before, he’s turned those strikeout numbers around. He’s at 20.5% strikeouts and 8.05 K/9. His groundball rate, while still solid, has taken a fall to 46.1%. His home run rate, however, has skyrocketed to an unusually high level: 15.1 HR/FB% and 1.42 HR/9. The process hasn’t been dramatically different, but the results sure have been. The only substantial positive change has been the whiff/swing% on Nova’s curveball. Last year, it was 24.15%; this year, it’s 37.67, a nice big change. There has been a trade-off, though. Despite the swings and misses, the pitch is also getting hit for a home run more often this year (9.09 HR/(FB+LD)% than it was last year (5.56%).
We noted Nova’s drop in fastball usage above so let’s check in on the results. He’s gotten a few more batters to swing and miss–9.52 whiff/swing% compared to 9.43 last year–but the pitch has also yielded fewer grounders (47.85 GB/BIP to 53.42) and more homers (7.29 HF/(FB+LD) to 5.33 last year).
The slider, the supposed key to Nova’s ascension in the pitching ranks, has been a bit of a mixed bag this year. It’s getting more grounders by just under 2%, but is getting fewer swings and misses by just under 3% and is leading to more home runs. On the slider in 2011, Nova gave up 9.09 HR/(FB+LD); this season, it’s been an astronomical 22.22%. In a similar vein, Nova’s changeup has ended up in the seats at an alarming rate of 44.44% HR/(FB+LD). That pitch is, somewhat paradoxically, under 40% for grounders per balls in play.
Despite some dazzling performances, especially with his curveball, Nova’s year has been a roller coaster ride and at this point, it seems like the lows are more memorable than the highs. The increase in home runs and decrease in groundballs show us that Nova’s probably having trouble keeping the ball down. His home run rates are so high and out of line with his previous numbers that we may have to wait until next year to see if this was a problem or if it was a bout of bad luck. However, a previous foray into this line of thought showed that luck likely wasn’t the culprit.
Though it’s hard to argue or be displeased with an increase in strikeout production, I wonder if Nova wold be better served by going back to inducing grounders and forgoing strikeouts. Keeping the ball low in the zone will keep the ball in the park, and that’s more important than striking batters out.