Nova must find his identity as a pitcher
The Yankee rotation has been rounding into shape a bit over the last couple of weeks. The comeback of Andy Pettitte has been huge as a stabilizing addition and Phil Hughes has been much better of late also. Hiroki Kuroda has had his problems and sure isn’t a number 2 starter in the Al East. However, with CC & Andy making up a solid 1-2 punch of lefties who will always fight and give a strong outing, the Yanks can afford Hughes and Kuroda at the back-end of the rotation. The big question mark is who is Ivan Nova? Is he the quality #3 pitcher who went 16-4 with a 3.70 ERA last year – or is he the pitcher with an ERA pushing 6 this year who has been wildly inconsistent from inning to inning?
Nova seems to be going through an identity crisis as a pitcher this year. In the minors and last season he was a ground ball machine who featured a hard, sinking fastball that induced grounders and greatly limited HRs. He was 7th in the A.L with a miniscule 0.71 HR/9 ratio and 5th in the league with a 52.7% Ground Ball Rate. He let batters put the ball in play and watched his defense do the work as he ony struck out 5.3 per 9 ip. That formula was successful last year but in order for him to progress as a pitcher, he needed to add a swing and miss pitch. He began incorporating a Slider in the 2nd half last year and it was a successful pitch that led to more strikeouts and had fans excited for 2012.
This year, it seems Nova is eschewing his GB pitching ways and attempting to put hitters away himself. According to brooksbaseball.net, he has only thrown his Fastball 50% of the time as opposed to 61% last year. His Slider usage has jumped from 13% to 20%. The change to more breaking pitches has led to a huge rise in Strikeouts as he’s among MLB leaders this yr with a 9.55 K/9. While the rise in Strikeouts has been a positive outcome from his changed approach, Nova has also endured a huge negative also. He’s giving up Hits and especially HRs at an alarming rate. His HR/9 has more than doubled from last yr at 1.84 as he’s allowed 10 HRs in 49 IP after allowing 13 all of last season in 165 IP. That is a very disturbing trend.
One reason for those trends is he isn’t getting the same downward movement on his pitches this season. Brooks shows the vertical movement on his Fastball has risen from -16.7 inches to -14.4 inches. In fact, all of his pitches have less downward movement according to the pitch f/x data. This leads me to believe Nova has slightly dropped his arm angle and isn’t getting on top of his pitches, thus the more Flyballs, Hits & HRs.
If you are a believer in luck than Nova is due for a turnaround. Although his ERA is 5.69, he has a 3.47 xfip and 3.31 SIERA which would foretell a drop in ERA is coming. He has allowed an enormous .393 Batting Average on Balls in Play – an unsustainable number that has to come down. Last yr it was .283. The other number due to drop is his 19.2% HR/FB rate. Nearly 1 in 5 of his Fly Balls have left the park as opposed to just 8.4% last season. However, there have been reasons for theses huge ratios that looking at mere numbers can’t tell you. Nova has had very poor command this year and has been wild within the zone. He has been missing his spots – pitching up and in the middle of the strike zone far too often. During games he seems to get on a roll striking people out but loses concentration and makes mistakes which have not been missed by batters. His Fastball command has been poor but he has hung far too many off speed pitches as 8 of his 10 HRs have been on off speed pitches – 3 Sliders, 1 Curve & 4 Change Ups. His Change Up in particular has been a true Gopher pitch. He’s only thrown it 43 times with 4 of them leaving the Yard – so nearly 10% of his Change Ups are HRs!
Nova needs to find himself as a pitcher. I believe he needs to look at his release point and find out why his pitches aren’t getting the same downward action. Throw his Sinking Fastball more often to induce more grounders and he MUST maintain concentration to better command his off speed stuff. We know Nova can be successful based on his performance last yr and his stuff is very good. His Fastball sits around 93 MPH and when he drives it down in the zone, it is a nasty pitch. His Slider and Curveball have both shown very positive signs and have been behind his rise in Strikeouts. When located, his Change can be effective vs lefties. All the ingredients are there. Nova just has to harness his stuff and embrace the fact that he’s a better pitcher inducing ground balls. This is easier said than done and can often take pitchers years to learn how to pitch and command all their pitches. How fast Nova can do this may be the key to the rotation this year. If he continues to struggle, it won’t be long before a demotion to AAA becomes a reality. However, if he can pitch the way he did last season the Yankees will have a 1-3 of CC, Pettitte, Nova that can throw a lot of quality starts and will make Hughes and Kuroda acceptable 4th and 5th starters.