Ivan Nova, the not so terrible?

Is there a chance we could see less of this expression on Ivan Nova's face in the future? - Jim Rogash

Reasons for hope in a disappointing start for Nova's 2013 season.

It is pretty clear that the Yankees are banking on their pitching to be the primary arbiter of success or failure this year. It is also pretty clear of that statement’s import until some of the injured can return to fill in the lineup. So it is understandable that there would be a lot of attention paid to all of the starters’ performances to date by Yankee fandom. Turmoil has certainly been brewing over the back end of the rotation in Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova. Earlier this week site mate Keith R.A. DeCandido, penned this piece on the troubling trends in Nova’s game, which are all very valid. However, today I’d like to offer some reasons for hope that maybe Nova has some positives which Yankee fans can hang their shiny wish-cast stars to.

First off, I have to come clean. I have a small bias here in that I am a Nova owner on one of my fantasy teams. I picked him up in the reserve rounds, but due to a shellacking from the Injury Gods I actually need him to step up and bring me some roto love. Otherwise it’s back to the Jason Vargas experiment. Yikes: 0 Wins, 10 K’s, 5.815 ERA, 2.031 WHIP. Well, maybe I’d just give up and use a set-up reliever, but the point is that I know I’m trying to look at the bright side here. I’m not going to refute the obvious that Nova has struggled. My second admission is that I offered Nova as part of a multi-player trade earlier in the week. So having laid out my huge caveat emptor of an excuse, let’s dig in and see why I do have some hope here.

The first reason why I started to look at Nova is because my preseason work had led me to believe that Nova’s big issue was, in fact, the long ball. So if he could get his ground ball rate back up towards 2011 and reduce those home runs, then Nova had a shot at being a significantly better pitcher. While I might have missed an inning he pitched I couldn’t remember him giving up a home run yet this year and, sure enough, he hasn’t. In fact, a few of his stats might be looking optimistic in the early goings of 2013.

Ivan Nova

2011

2012

2013

ERA

3.700

5.020

6.140

WHIP

1.330

1.470

1.840

xFIP

4.16

3.92

3.73

K%

13.9%

20.5%

23.2%

BB%

8.1%

7.5%

11.6%

LOB%

73.2%

72.5%

65.5%

BABIP

.283

.331

.442

GB%

52.7%

45.2%

50.0%

LD%

18.4%

22.4%

28.6%

HR/FB

8.4%

16.6%

0.0%

IFH%

4.9%

5.9%

9.5%

source: www.fangraphs.com

So let’s try to make some sense out of this by comparing the bad and the good. Obviously, the actual results are going in the wrong direction in the form of ERA and WHIP. I would argue that his 2011 success was overstated relative to his skill set, but that some of those skills showed improvement last year and have continued into this year. The big problem was that near doubling of his HR/FB rate, as well as an increase in fly balls. This year we’re seeing the ground balls trend closer to 2011, and, as noted before, he hasn’t given up a homerun yet.

What can we hope for in terms of positive forms of regression for Nova? Well that BABIP sure does stand out doesn’t it? You could definitely argue that it’s supported by his line drive rate, suggesting that Nova is just getting legitimately hit hard. I’m trying to be positive here though, folks. So I’m going to suggest you look at that infield hit percentage as well. Those two items might provide a decent explanation for the rise in WHIP and dip in his LOB% as well. I didn’t even put in the chart that shows his infield fly ball rate is actually up nearly 3.5% from his previous two years.

The big issue here is his control as his walks have risen well above the double digit line. That takes a bite out of the benefits from his increased strike out rate. So does that make up for the fact that over a quarter of balls put in play against him are line drives right now? No, but there are signs in here that some of this might be poor luck as well. That declining xFIP calculation is at least encouraging to the optimists among us. So did I hear you ask about his pitch velocity and selection data?

Ivan Nova

2011

2012

2013

vFT

92.6

93.3

92.7

FB%

61.5%

53.9%

57.0%

SL%

11.5%

14.0%

8.2%

CB%

22.4%

28.8%

30.9%

wFT

(4.0)

(4.1)

0.8

wSL

0.9

(4.5)

0.0

wCU

(1.0)

5.5

(0.5)

SwStr%

6.6%

9.0%

7.9%

Z-Swing%

64.8%

64.4%

58.2%

Zone%

44.4%

43.7%

38.6%

F-Strike%

60.4%

58.4%

53.6%

source: www.fangraphs.com

On top of this list is his two-seam fastball velocity, which is still strong. The three next lines are the percentage breakdowns of what he’s mostly throwing. The good news is he’s using his fastball more and his slider less. The following three lines are PITCHfx’s pitch values for those three types of pitches. The slider was a problem for Nova last year and the curve was effective. He’s changed his strategy for the better, but the results have switched with his curveball value diminishing greatly. The net value doesn’t look as bad as his actual results so far.

His swinging strike percentage might be down from last year’s improvement, but it’s still a good bit higher than what it was in 2011. This brings us to what I think his biggest problem is right now in the control department. The Z-Swing% line measures how often batters are offering at Nova’s pitches that are inside the strike zone. This year it is noticeably down and that’s because Nova is struggling with his control overall. The next two lines show total pitches in the zone, and the percentage of first pitches in the strike zone. Both are down materially from the previous two years. Hence, his 11.6% walk rate.

In the end a lot of his statistics are actually trending positively and the result leaves ERA indicators, such as xFIP, with his lowest reading in the last three years. His home run rate hasn’t reared its ugly head yet and his ground ball rate is back to an elite 50% level. His key two-seam fastball velocity is still very good, and he’s been throwing it more this year than last while reducing the usage of his slider. The key issue for him this year is his control. He’s walking more, and he’s usually starting out behind in the count. That is leading to hitters being more patient, and putting better contact on the ball when they do. Control had been fairly steady for him in previous years and even in the minors he tended towards a 7-8% BB% that we saw in his first two years with the big club. This is where I say it’s only been three starts people.

I’m just going to finish this off with a list I compiled of 2012 leaders with GB% over 50% and k% over 20% sorted by lowest ERA.

Name 2012

GB%

K%

BB%

HR/FB

FBv

LOB%

ERA

WHIP

xFIP

BABIP

LD%

Zone%

F-Strike%

SwStr%

David Price

53.1

24.5

7.1

10.5

95.5

81.1

2.56

1.10

3.12

.285

19.9

46.2

62.7

8.3

A.J. Burnett

56.9

21.2

7.3

12.7

92.3

74.1

3.51

1.24

3.40

.294

18.8

47.7

61.1

9.4

James Shields

52.3

23.6

6.1

13.4

92.3

71.9

3.52

1.17

3.24

.292

18.7

41.7

61.0

10.9

C.J. Wilson

50.3

20.0

10.5

10.8

91.7

70.0

3.83

1.34

4.10

.281

19.9

47.3

57.3

7.6

Adam Wainwright

50.8

22.1

6.3

9.9

90.1

67.8

3.94

1.25

3.23

.315

23.0

44.6

64.1

8.6

Edinson Volquez

50.6

21.7

13.1

9.9

93.6

73.1

4.14

1.45

4.20

.292

21.2

44.6

53.0

10.1

There are some pretty good names on this list for the most part. To my eyes the separating category is that BB%. Outside of Adam Wainwright’s low LOB% driving his ERA up, it was the control that set the elite talent out the most. At the worst you can see a high 3 to low 4 ERA in this group. If Nova can get his first strike percentage back in line, then I think the rest of the chips could fall into place for the him.

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