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.
Nova's getting a significant amount of additional horizontal movement towards right-handed hitters, and that slight drop off in vertical movement, the sinking action, should increase ground balls. Nova's 16.6% HR/FB from 2012 is an indication of how hard fly balls were hit off him, so anything to help keep the ball on the ground should help prevent extra base hits.
The graph above is an interactive 3D model of Nova's four-seam and sinking fastball from Friday night. If you move to the catcher's position, the pitch that goes down and in to right-handed hitters is your sinker. From the 3rd base perspective, you can see the sinker dropping earlier than the four-seam. And in the bird's eye view, you'll see the additional horizontal action.
In the past, the Yankees have been extremely reluctant to encourage their starters to throw the sinker. With the small dimension of Yankee Stadium, it's a mystery why they never influenced top prospects like Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain, or Ian Kennedy to focus on the ground ball inducing sinker over the fly ball friendly four-seam. Of the homegrown starters to throw the sinker, Chien Ming Wang and David Phelps have each been very successful in Yankee Stadium. You could make the case that fly balls in Yankee Stadium held back a number of these starters, especially Phil Hughes.
Last year, following A.J. Burnett's success in Pittsburgh, I asked the question why the Yankees never encouraged the troubled right-hander to throw more sinkers. After being traded, from 2011 to 2012, Burnett's sinker frequency grew from 14% to 36% with the Pirates, and his fly ball rate dropped from 32.3% to 24.3%, while his ground ball rate rose from 49.2% to 56.9%. The right-hander rebounded into the ace of Pittsburgh's staff, posting a 3.52 FIP in his first year away from the Bronx.
For some reason, the Yankees organization seems to value the four-seam over the sinker. It could be part of a team strategy that recognizes the weakness of the infield defense and the strength of the range in the outfield, but that seems like an awfully elaborate plan considering the development of today's homegrown pitchers began in the mid-2000's.
With Nova adding the sinker to his repertoire, and perhaps another pitcher adding it as well, (tomorrow's article) there looks to be a change in pitching philosophy. It's just speculation, but over the offseason, the Yankees brought in a new pitching coordinator Gil Patterson, and all these changes may have something to do with him. Hopefully this means good things for a team that's struggled to develop starters in recent years. For Nova, he still has to prove that he can command the sinker and use them appropriately, but it's good to see him look for progress in his weakest pitch.