Who Is The Real Ivan Nova?

The jury was always out on Ivan Nova, who came into 2013 with two and a half years split between dominance and floundering. Much like the pitching prospects before him, Nova’s reputation was a seesaw teetering between hype and disappointment.

After winning August’s Pitcher of the Month award, the hype was again high for the right-handed starter. Since his stint with Triple-A, Nova put together 86.2 innings and a 2.28 ERAt. It wasn’t an huge sample size, but it was enough to start believing in the results. Since then, Nova faced the Red Sox twice and the Orioles once. He gave up 11 earned runs over 14.0 innings, good for a 7.07 ERA and a .298/.388/.509 slash.

So now we’re left wondering, who is the real Ivan Nova? We have 377.2 innings of data from his age 23 to 25 seasons that say he’s a back of the rotation pitcher. His 4.38 ERA over that time is far from bad, especially when you take into account the ballparks and competition, but it’s certainly not what the Yankees or fans wanted. Should we expect the regression to continue, or should we believe in the Nova from August?

The fluctuations in production in the past have coincided with changes in his repertoire. The success in the second half of the 2011 season happened with the introduction of a slider. At first, the pitch was a legitimate swing and miss breaking ball, but as the 2012 season came and went, it proved that perhaps the newness of the pitch was what led to such little contact. Confidence in the new pitch or incomplete scouting reports from opposing teams might have been the reason for his 3.18 ERA at the end of 2011. Though the slider remained dominant in 2012, at least in terms of strike outs, it was also hittable. According to Brooks Baseball, the slider carried a high 59.05% swing rate, a 22.12% whiff rate, but also a 4.77% line drive rate and a 1.26% home run rate. Batters hit .252 with a .434 slugging percentage on the pitch, and when the ball was put in play, batters hit .408 on it.

Meanwhile, Nova’s curveball generated strike outs as well (a 12.97% whiff rate), but batters hit just .167 with a .308 slugging percentage on the pitch. Early in 2013, it was clear that Nova had less trust in his slider. After four short and ineffective outings, Nova spent nearly a month on the disabled list and came back without his slider. His velocity increased, his curveball was sharper, and his repertoire was simplified.

Since his return from Triple-A in late June, Nova hasn’t thrown the slider once. What we did see from Nova is a fundamental change in his pitching strategy. In 2012, Nova relied on strike outs, and when players weren’t whiffing on his slider, they were squaring up the breaking ball and his four-seam for extra base hits. But now Nova is again pitching to contact, as he had in the early parts of his career. This is evident in his other repertoire change, the addition of a sinker.

Nova became more confident with the pitch, and the selection of sinkers now outweigh his four-seam usage. The pitch has thus far allowed just a .260 average and a .323 slugging percentage. It’s generating a ridiculous 17.56% ground ball rate, and though the percentage is extremely high, it’s not hard to see why he’s so successful. The difference between Nova’s sinker and four-seam fastball is one of the more impressive fastball differences in the game. Last month, I covered that difference.

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The question everybody asked after last night’s game was whether Nova’s August numbers were for real. With the fluctuations we’ve seen from Nova in the past, I’m not sure that even a year’s worth of data represents a big enough sample size to prove anything. Nova’s production will remain a mystery, and I think he’ll continue to be a volatile pitcher until he matures. But if you’re asking if Nova is for real, the answer is yes. The data, the eye test, and the results say that his sinker and curveball can be plus pitches. He has the ability to become a front of the rotation starter, but that doesn’t mean it will happen. As the Red Sox have showed in their two matchups, Nova needs either more consistency with his curveball command, or a third out-pitch. When hitters know to lay off the curveball, they know to expect the fastball, and he clearly isn’t comfortable with the slider, and his changeup is dismal.

Nova is still a work in progress. Until he matures and finds a second out pitch, I think we’ll continue to see volatile results. The emergence of the sinker makes him slightly more reliable, but the curveball isn’t enough of an out-pitch. If you thought he was an ace, the answer is no, but a top of the rotation ceiling still exists. What he did in August wasn’t good luck, but what he’s done in September isn’t bad luck. Nova is human, he’s going to continue to have good and bad results. He’s a young pitcher that’s still searching for what works at the major league level, and growing pains are something Yankee fans will have to deal with if they want a younger team.