There have been several story lines thus far in Yankee camp, especially when it comes to the starting rotation. How will Masahiro Tanaka fare in his first season in New York? How will CC Sabathia bounce back from his nightmare 2013 season? Who among Michael Pineda, David Phelps, Adam Warren, and Vidal Nuno will win the number five spot in the rotation? One storyline that hasn't gotten much publicity so far, however, is Ivan Nova and if he'll be able to build off his strong 2013 campaign.
Despite the lack of talk so far in camp, Nova comes into 2014 a year after leading Yankee starters in ERA (3.10) and FIP (3.47). This comes thanks to a strong 17-game run from late-June through the end of the season, where he pitched to a solid 2.70 ERA with some solid peripheral numbers mixed in, namely in the home run department. Nova allowed just eight homers in 116 2/3 innings (0.62 HR/9) through his final 17 outings, whereas he allowed a 1.5 HR/9 in 2012. Because he was able to rebound from his rough 2012 with a strong second half in 2013, Nova has given the fans, and even the team that employs him, some confidence that he'll continue to keep the momentum going in 2014.
At the same time, we've seen this sort of thing from Nova before. In the second half of 2011, Nova pitched to a 3.09 ERA with solid peripheral numbers, namely a 0.45 HR/9, in his final 12 starts of the season. He followed that up, as you know, with a dud of a 2012, especially in the second half, where he pitched to an ugly 7.05 ERA and saw his home run rate spike up to 1.65-per-nine during that span.
Even if we are a little skeptical of what Nova will do in 2014, I think there are signs pointing toward the pitcher he was in 2011 and 2013 (mainly 2013). Along with the statistical improvements, he ditched the slider in the second half of last season in favor of his bread-and-butter curveball. He also added a sinker, which helped him generate a ton of grounders as well. It would be nice if he continued to incorporate the slider at least here and there, though, since it wasn't that bad of a pitch for him in 2012 (102 wRC+ against). We saw a few times (namely against the Red Sox) last season where he got into some trouble when he had problems locating his curve, so perhaps him going to a slider in that spot could have softened the damage just a bit.
The 2014 season happens to be first of three arbitration years for Nova, so he could get a nice raise next winter, or perhaps even an extension, if he picks up where he left off in 2013. Nova is also out of minor league options, so there isn't the luxury of being able to send him down to the minors for a wake-up call; he'll have to grind through his struggles on his own at the big league level. Just because it isn't getting much attention right now, Nova attempting to take the next step from up-and-down starter to front-line starter is a pretty big story for the 2014 Yankees.