Ivan Nova, Inconsistency, and the Yankees Defense

DETROIT - MAY 13: Ivan Nova #41 of the New York Yankees pitches in the seventh inning against the Detroit Tigers on May 13, 2010 at Comerica Park in Detroit, Michigan. The Tigers defeated the Yankees 6-0. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

When Ivan Nova was coming up through the Yankees system, the knock on him was that he had two pitches, not the three that are usually necessary to succeed as a starter. The results during his first audition in 2010 seemed to bear that out—the fourth or fifth inning came around and Nova was headed for the showers, unable to give the hitters something new to look at.

Flash forward to 2011, and Nova, despite a below-average strikeout rate that again supported the idea of a shallow arsenal, won 16 games. There was more that was surprising and smelled just a bit of a fluke happenstance: an unexpectedly high rate of groundouts to air outs, with a lower-than-average number of those air balls leaving the park.

We can dissect Nova’s season a number of ways, but "Inconsistent" seems to be the fastest route to describing it.

Outside of June, there is a good start/evil start pattern to his appearances. Comparing plots of his pitches between this year and last reveals a pitcher who is missing his location far more often in 2012. Last year’s surprisingly high groundball rate has receded. Fly balls are leaving the park at a higher rate than before. Nova’s average velocity is up slightly, and he’s even walking fractionally fewer batters than last year, but that only illustrates the difference between "command" and "control."

Nova finally has the high strikeout rate that has eluded him, but at the cost of pitching effectively. It’s one of the great ironies of the season. That said, his league-leading 160 hits allowed would be a less staggering total if the Yankees were better at the whole fielding thing. Going into Tuesday’s game, the Yankees were 12th in a 14-team league in defensive efficiency. You know who the culprits are—basically everybody; there are some good gloves here, such as Robinson Cano, but he’s not Bill Mazeroski. As the Mariners showed a couple of years ago, going crazy for good-field/no-hit players doesn’t gets you nowhere in a hurry, but there is also a point when a team is too old and slow to get out of its own way and to the bare minimum it has to do to support its pitching staff. The Yankees might be there now.

Note that the batting average on balls in play against Nova has jumped from .284 in 2011 to .337 this year. He's gone from lucky to unlucky, or, depending on your point of view, from receiving more than his share of defensive support to less.

This isn’t the Yankees’ only problem right now, nor their only long-term problem given a dry farm system which is increasing in aridity on a daily basis (buh-bye for now, Betances and Banuelos) and an insistence on reducing payroll with aging blocks of immovable dough on the roster and more to come, but it does have a place in the discussion of the team's future. When Brian Cashman scoffs at those who criticize the Yankees for being too old, this is the part he’s overlooking.

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