Josh Johnson and the Blue Jays handed this game to the Yankees in the fifth inning. With the Blue Jays leading 2-1, the Yankees loaded the bases on three hits by Chris Stewart, Robinson Cano and Vernon Wells. Johnson managed to get Travis Haffner out, but after that he completely lost the strike zone. Johnson issued bases loaded walks to Lyle Overbay and Eduardo Nunez, handing the Yankees a 3-2 lead. The Yankees expanded that lead the next inning when Brett Gardner scored Jayson Nix on a sacrifice fly. Suddenly the Yankees were up by two heading into the final innings with a possible sweep on their hands.
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The Yankees and the Blue Jays have gone in opposite directions so far this year. Coming into the season the Yankees were projected to struggle due to injuries and austerity, while the new look Jays were supposed to thrive. So far the Yankees are off to a strong start, while the Blue Jays are currently in dead last. But the baseball season can change from one game to the next. Today the Yankees put Ivan Nova on the mound while the Jays counter with one of their new players, Josh Johnson. Once upon a time Johnson was a rising Ace with Florida. He was also made of glass. This season he’s off to a poor start (so you know he’ll give the Jays eight strong innings). Nova, meanwhile, has also struggled. My gut says this will turn out to be a pitcher’s duel, but if I’m wrong it could be a 10-8 ball game. Use this as your game thread. Enjoy!
As you probably know by now–thanks to last night’s canceled game thread–the Yankees will be skipping Ivan Nova‘s turn in the rotation, opting to go with Phil Hughes tomorrow; Nova will work out of the bullpen in between starts.
Nova struggled in his first start. Though he struck out five batters, he didn’t finish five innings, tossing just 4. in Detroit on the fifth. He also gave up four runs (all earned) and allowed seven baserunners (five hits, two walks). Something else of note, though, happened in that game and Mike explained it the other day: Nova was throwing a sinker at the Tigers’ batters. If we head over to BrooksBaseball and check out Nova’s player card, we can see that he threw the sinker 15% of the time, his third most used pitch behind his fastball (46%) and his curveball (25%). It would seem that goal number one would be for Nova to use that sinker when he’s brought in for a relief outing. As it will be a relief outing, Nova (likely) won’t need to worry about going through the order twice. So, he can use his sinker without having to adjust or think about it too much. Working in a new pitch is all about feel and if Nova’s in a game in relief, chances are it’s a game that won’t be too pressure packed–long relief usually means a blowout one way or the other. A low-leverage situation could be just what he needs to start perfecting a pitch that could be effective going forward. Last season, Nova’s groundball rate dropped over 10% (45.2% in 2012 down from 52.7 in 2011) and despite a big uptick in strikeouts, Nova got hit all around the park last year. Adding a sinker will force Nova to work down in the zone and hopefully allow him to regain some grounders, which are always helpful. He’s got a fastball to beat batters upstairs and get swings and misses. A low, grounder inducing sinker would be a perfect complement.
Ivan Nova didn’t give the greatest performance on Friday, but he did break out a new pitch. Giving up 5 hits, 4 runs, and 2 walks in 4.2 innings is hardly something to get excited about, but beyond the numbers, Nova could be taking a giant leap with his career, and the Yankees a giant leap with their pitching philosophies.
One of the weakest parts of Nova’s repertoire is his hittable fastball. Although he’s capable of velocity in the mid-90′s, Nova’s four-seam fastball lacks movement, and was hit around for a .371 average and .632 slugging percentage in 2012. Compare this to his slider and curveball, which respectively allowed .254 and .170 batting averages. His breaking pitches have developed well over the last few years, and from 2011 to 2012, he saw a spike in his K% from 13.9% to 20.5%. With a year and a half of success with his slider and curveball, he’s developed a high ceiling with genuinely nasty secondary pitches, but his four-seam fastball has been the weak link holding him back.
In a post last month, I discussed Nova’s new arm motion from Spring Training. I noticed that his fastball showed a considerable amount of sinking action compared to last year, and sure enough, PITCHf/x confirms that he was throwing a sinker. Take a look at the movement chart (below) from Friday to get an idea of how it compares with his four-seam fastball.
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Tonight, the 2013 Major League Baseball season begins, with the Texas Rangers playing the Houston Astros. The most beautiful thing about the baseball season is that it changes how I spend my leisure time. Nothing on TV tonight? They always play baseball. Can’t think of something to do after work? Call a buddy and watch some baseball. Don’t know how to spend time on a sunny afternoon? Upper deck tickets are cheap on Stub Hub and the 4 train moves fast. 162 games plus the playoffs means something to do, something to watch and something to talk about for half the year, and in terms of weather it’s the better half of the year.
After the gift of always having something entertaining to do, my second favorite thing about the baseball season is following story lines. Most Yankee fans are upset because the team enters 2013 in the weakest state that it has been in since 2008. Not only is the team not favored to win the AL East, but many believe the team will miss the playoffs. Win or lose, challenging seasons at least give fans like me more story lines to follow. When the Yankees put a juggernaut on the field and it demolishes its opponents every success was essentially scripted and only the failures make headlines. When the team is predicted to struggle, as it is this year, then new story lines will emerge, not only about failure but also about unexpected success. If the Yankees are going to make the playoffs they’re going to need to get strong performances from a number of players who are not household names, especially while household names Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira and Curtis Granderson are on the DL. Here are some of the story lines I’ll be following during the first month of the season:
“In the beginning, it was hard,” Nova said. “But now I feel more comfortable. … I’m better down (in the zone), throwing more strikes.”
“I think he’s commanded his fastball better and I think he’s had a better downhill plane because of the little adjustment he made with his hands,” Joe Girardi said. “To me that (was) his inconsistency a lot of times last year was his command would get a little bit off. He didn’t walk people, but he didn’t hit his spots. And I’ve seen an improvement in that.”
This isn’t exactly a new delivery for the right-hander, as he indicated yesterday that he uses this shorter arm motion when throwing the slider. This isn’t all too uncommon, as most pitchers attempt to get a slightly higher arm slot on curveballs to increase the sinking action. Here is what the release points of both Nova’s fastball and curveball looked like in 2012.
The blue indicates Nova’s curveball release point, while the grey represents his fastballs.
Nova and the Yankees are now hoping that using the shorter arm motion for all his pitches will help his command. As I pointed out yesterday, Nova also changed his delivery during the 2012 season by keeping his hands level with his chest, rather than bringing them over his head. Thus far, Nova has been hitting his spot very wells, and in 9.0 innings this spring, he’s allowed only 1 walk and 8 hits.
There’s been a lot of talk about the slider that Nova added in the middle of the 2011 season, but few talk about his changed mechanics. His hand position is the biggest difference.
In 2011, Nova brought his hands above his head during the windup. Sometime in 2012, he changed this by keeping his hands level to his chest. This does a number of things, but most importantly it allows him to keep his head steady and maintain eye contact with the catcher. When he had his hands over his head, Nova was forced to drop his head, thus causing him to lose focus of home plate and slouch prior to his stride.
Since 2010, Nova’s BB% has dropped from 9.2%, to 8.1%, to 7.5%. Keeping his hands to his chest may be one factor in his improved walk rates.
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It has been a bumpy right for Yankee fans to start spring training. Already injured, Alex Rodriguez was implemented in another steroid scandal. Curtis Granderson was injured. Shortly after that Mark Teixeira was injured. All of this has drawn attention to an aging, potentially weak Yankee lineup. The potential lack of power in the offense may be true, but it is distracting everyone from the strength of the Yankee pitching staff.
This season the Yankees return as potent a 1-2-3 punch as they’ve had in years in CC Sabathia, Andy Pettitte and Hiroki Kuroda. Sure, the latter two are old, but that’s a starting rotation you can count on. Still, it takes more than three starters to get it done in baseball. That’s why, for all the emphasis on the offense, the real secret to the 2013 season may be the performance of Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova.
Though the season hasn’t even started, the Yankees have already had their depth tested in two positions. Curtis Granderson‘s injury has opened up a spot in the outfield, and the catching situation has been much maligned since the Yankees declined to re-sign Russell Martin and passed on signing A.J. Pierzynski. And with Derek Jeter‘s ankle injury, we’ll see the infield depth tested as Eduardo Nunez and/or Jayson Nix get some time at short to spell the Captain. On the other hand, the pitching seems to be fairly deep.
The bullpen is well-stocked and some pitchers (think Clay Rapada and Cody Eppley) will not last the year on the 25-man roster. Likewise, though not quite as widely, the starting rotation is considered to be an area of strength. It’s certainly a talented rotation featuring CC Sabathia, Andy Pettitte, and Hiroki Kuroda. But is it as deep as we think?
Phil Hughes has already suffered an injury. Andy Pettitte is coming off an injury (granted it was a freak, batted ball thing). Kuroda, though he showed few (if any) signs of injury last year, is coming off a career high in innings pitched. Sabathia, godly though he may be is coming off of (relatively minor) elbow surgery. It’s easy to imagine one or more of them missing time over the course of the season. If (when) that happens, where can the Yankees turn?