It was hard not to be disappointed by Ivan Nova last year. As Yankee fans, usually we reserve the disappointment for the top pitching prospect, but this guy could throw hard, he could locate, and he certainly had confidence. In 2011, Nova discovered a slider, which became an extremely effective tool in the second half of the season. Nova would return from the major leagues on July 30th, 2011, and sporting his new slider, he finished the season with 73.2 innings and a 3.18 ERA. In 2012, his new pitch helped him increase his strike out rates to a strong 20.5 K%, but when it wasn’t fooling hitters, the pitch was tagged. In addition to his failing breaking pitch, his four-seam fastball allowed hits and home runs at an alarming rate.
I noticed early on in Spring Training that Nova’s fastball looked to have a lot more sink on it, and sure enough, the right-hander added a sinker into his regular repertoire by the first start of the season. According to the tabular data at Brooks Baseball, the sinker helped him achieve more ground balls, but added little deception to his four-seam fastball, as the pitch was hit around even harder this time. In the first month of baseball, Nova allowed a .542 batting average on the pitch and a .750 slugging percentage. The sinker was slightly more effective, but it was still hit at a .333 rate and slugged at .467. To add to that, his slider wasn’t nearly as effective as it was in the previous season, and Nova finished his first four starts of the season with a miserable 6.48 ERA.
Nova went to the disabled list on April 27th with what the team described as tricep soreness, as well as an oblique strain, and also a neck injury. Perhaps he was truly injured, but the mixed messages on what was really wrong make me believe that the organization tried to give him time off and work outside of the major leagues without using one of his options. He returned to pitch for the Yankees on May 25th and May 29th, and threw 6.0 innings, giving up 7 hits, 1 run, 2 walks, and earned 8 strikeouts. He didn’t throw a single slider, threw one change up, and his fastballs showed more vertical movement behind a cleaner release point.
The right-hander was also averaging 95.5 mph on his four-seam fastball and 95.2 mph on his sinker. Perhaps it was due to the weather, but there was a 1 mph improvement in velocity from the previous month, along with a 2 inch increase in vertical movement, and improved control around the strike zone. Regardless, Nova found himself optioned to the minor leagues.
While with Scranton, Nova pitched 18.0 innings in 3 starts, allowing just 4 earned runs (2.00 ERA), 17 strike outs (24.6 K%), 4 walks (5.8 BB%), and a .234/.275/.328 slash to hitters. Nova also increased his ground ball rates to around 47%, his fly ball rates to 41%, and his line drive rates to just 12%.
The pitcher was given a major league start on June 23rd, and yet again we saw something new from the starter. Nova threw a total of 103 pitches that day, 50 of which were curveballs. To both right-handed and left-handed hitters, Nova threw the breaking pitch well over 50% of the time on the first pitch. With two strikes, Nova threw the pitch 9 out of 10 times to left-handers, and 77% of the time to right-handers. This was certainly a change of pace from 2012, where he threw his curveball less than 30% of the time.
Perhaps it was the team that became critical of Nova’s inability to change velocity in 2012. Between his four-seam, slider, and changeup, there was only a 6 mph difference between three pitchers that made up more than 70% of his selection. Now that he’s throwing more curveballs, the difference in velocity is much bigger. In his last start, Nova ended 13 at bats with his curveball, earned 6 strike outs, 1 walk, 1 hit by pitch, and gave up only 2 singles. Compared to his four-seam that gave up 8 base runners, Nova’s curveball was a saving grace.
But the right-hander still needs to learn how to be effective. Last season, Nova worked with a four-seam fastball, a slider, a curveball, and a changeup. Now that he owns a sinker, he’s lost the slider, and he’s more eager to throw the curveball, he’ll need to figure out the most effective pitch selection. His 6.2 innings of 3 run ball against the Rays look good from a quick glance, but he still allowed a ton of hits on the four-seam and too many walks all together. Regardless of his success or failure with his repertoire, it at least tells us that the right-hander is not content with himself, as he attempts to tinker for the better.