Nearly two weeks ago, I wrote a piece about how Ivan Nova changed his pitching repertoire this season. When Nova returned from a short but successful minor league stint, he no longer threw that signature slider he'd worked on for nearly two years. The right-hander now complimented his four-seam fastball with a new diving sinker, a curveball, and the occasional changeup. In terms of how he was throwing the ball, the vertical fastball movement increased by two inches, his release point was much sharper, and he gained some significant velocity.
I'm not sure what the organization did to Nova, but since returning from the minors, he's looked like a top of the rotation pitcher.
My last article focused around a spot start he was given on June 23rd, against the Rays, where he pitched 6.2 innings, giving up 7 hits, 3 walks, 3 runs, and earned 7 strike outs. It was hardly his best start, but his pitches and usage were noticeably improved.
On June 29th, Nova was handed the ball after a short and miserable display by David Phelps, the starter who took his job in May. Nova had enough in the tank to not only save the team's bullpen, but to give them 5.2 quality innings, giving up just 6 hits, 2 runs, and earning 4 strike outs against baseball's fourth best offense, the Orioles.
After watching Nova's up's and down's of the last three seasons, it's easy to forget how dominating he can look at times. Going into another start against the Orioles on Friday, I wondered if Baltimore would be the team to finally crack his new repertoire, especially after seeing it just 6 days earlier. Instead, Nova pitched arguably the best game of his MLB career. He went the full 9.0 innings, gave up just 3 hits, 1 walk, 2 runs, and earned 11 strike outs. Nova was so efficient against the Orioles that when the game was tied in the bottom of the 9th inning, I wondered if Girardi would send him out for the 10th inning with a 102 pitch count.
Nova's domination of the Rays and Orioles represent the 6th and 4th highest wOBA teams in baseball, and it's hard not to be encouraged by this resurgence.
On Friday, Nova was sitting in the mid-90's with both his four-seam and sinker, while throwing a curveball that hitters had no chance at. In fact, of the 33 curveballs he threw, only 4 were put in play, 3 groundballs and 1 line drive. He recorded 10 total whiffs on the breaking pitch, 8 of which ended at bats in strike outs. But Nova has always has the ability to generate strike outs. The most important factor in his recent success has been poor contact. Hitters have not been able to square up his sinker, and in total he's now generating 50.9% ground balls on balls in play. According to Brooks Baseball, he's allowed just one hit on the sinker since June 23rd, a single.
Over his career, Nova's biggest weakness has been his four-seamer. Despite throwing hard, batters have hit .324 off the pitch with a .504 slugging percentage. Adding the sinker was a no-brainer, but it wasn't until his last three starts that he's shown mastery of it. Complimenting it was a strong curveball has made him one of the most exciting pitchers to watch over the last few weeks.
And since progress has come with actual tinkering, I'm growing more and more enthusiastic about the right-hander. Still, I know better than to expect so much out of Nova, who's been as inconsistent of a pitcher as anyone in the Major Leagues. While I eagerly await the next stop on the Nova renaissance tour, I'm suspicious of how long this can realistically last.