It's early, it was just one game, and it left him with a 4.50 ERA, but it was hard not to be impressed with Ivan Nova on Monday night. After strong Spring Training which saw him claim the fourth spot in the Yankee rotation with ease, highlighted by a hitless six-inning outing against the Orioles on St. Patrick's Day in which he debuted an impressive new variation on his slider, Nova was sharp in his regular season debut against the Twins.
Pounding the bottom of the strike zone with pitches that dashed and darted at the knees, Nova didn't allow a hit until there were two outs in the fourth. He did run into trouble his second time through the Twins' order, giving up a pair of doubles in the fourth and two more in the fifth, resulting in three runs, but he held the line there, getting Jason Kubel and Joe Mauer to groundout, stranding a man on third and a man on second in the fourth and fifth innings, respectively.
When the lineup flipped over for a third time, which was when Nova turned into a pumpkin in his brief major league stint late last year, with opponents hitting .400/.531/.480 in their third at-bat of a game against him, Nova retired four of the six men he faced, erasing one of the exceptions with a double play ball, and ended his evening by striking out Jim Thome swinging through a 92-mile per hour, full-count fastball. Nova got 14 of his 18 outs by groundball or strikeout (including two double plays), and needed just 83 pitches to get through six innings. Having gotten that far with both the lead and a quality start intact, Nova was removed by Joe Girardi who, with the Yankees leading by just one run, was likely trying to lock in a good outing for his 24-year-old rookie, placing the value of a strong, confidence-building debut above the value of another inning of work.
The overall effect was the impression that Nova is maturing into a quality major league pitcher, one perfectly capable of holding down the fourth spot in a contending rotation, something that is entirely consistent with his projection from prospect hunters (though also generally considered to be his ceiling). For all of the attention the Killer B's, particularly Manny Bañuelos, received this spring, it seemed to get somewhat overlooked that the Yankees actually were giving a home-grown prospect a full, untethered, unlimited, unthreatened chance in the starting rotation. Nova threw 185 innings last year between the minor and major leagues, so there's no need for an innings limit. He's one of the Yankee starters, and if he can build on what he did Monday night, he will remain one.
That brings me to something I realized while working up my Awards Watch column on the Rookie of the Year fields for SI.com over the weekend. In all of baseball there are just eight rookies who are in their team's starting rotation. Two of them are short-term injury-replacements. One of them is Ivan Nova. Here's the full list:
• Jeremy Hellickson, RHP, Rays
• Zach Britton, LHP, Orioles
• Kyle Drabek, RHP, Blue Jays
• Michael Piñeda, RHP, Mariners
• Ivan Nova, RHP, Yankees
• Brandon Beachy, RHP, Braves
• Mike Minor, LHP, Braves
• Sam LeCure, RHP, Reds
Minor, a top prospect, and Lecure, who is not, are the injury replacements. Minor is expected to make just one start before Jair Jurrjens returns to take his spot. LeCure will be bumped when either Johnny Cueto or Homer Bailey return from shoulder soreness (both are throwing long-toss and expected back before the end of the month). Technically, Britton is an injury replacement as well, as he was sent to Triple-A to start the season only to be recalled to start the finale of the Orioles' opening series after Brian Matusz hit the disabled list with an intercostal strain problems. However, Britton is a top prospect who was likely only sent down to avoid starting his free agency clock. Now that he's here, he's likely to stay.
So, by May, Nova could be one of just six rookie starters in all of baseball. Both he and the Yankees deserve a lot of credit for that. Nova is a long shot at best for the Rookie of the Year award because the other four rookie starters in the American League (Hellickson, Britton, Drabek, and Piñeda) are all stud prospects, but it hadn't even occurred to me to consider Nova a contender for that award before I wrote that column and realized how few other rookies, be they pitchers or hitters, opened the season with starting jobs. That alone is an impressive accomplishment.
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Speaking of Yankee pitching, since I have you here and am working in a little shameless self-promotion, I filmed five Bronx Banter Breakdown segments with my Blogfather Alex Belth and SI.com compatriot Ben Reiter on Monday. The first two are up over on Bronx Banter addressing the Yankees' pitching and hitting. Alex will be posting one each afternoon through the rest of the week.