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Know Your 40: Ivan Nova

Can the 2011 rookie pitching sensation return to form, or did 2012 prove that season to be an anomaly?


Name: Ivan Nova
Position: Starter (RHP)
Age as of Opening Day 2013: 26 (born 1/12/1987)
Height: 6’4" Weight: 225 lbs.
Remaining Contract: Pre-arbitration, under team control through end of 2016
2012 statistics: (MLB) 28 starts, 12-8, 170.1 IP, 5.02 ERA, 4.60 FIP, 10.3 H/9, 3.0 BB/9, 8.1 K/9, 120 ERA-, 109 FIP-

Nova has gone from a nonfactor to a smashing success to a disappointment in just three seasons. Even with a bummer 2012, that three-year journey is remarkable. Nova was never really regarded as much of a prospect. In his second minor league season, he had a 4.98 ERA in Low-A Charleston, and it wasn’t much better in High-A Tampa a mere five years ago, 4.36. Nova’s FIP was fine and he had decent control at age 21, but he just gave up far too many hits per nine for his own good. He was not protected in the Rule 5 Draft, and the San Diego Padres claimed him, only to return him the next March. Despite a dominant half-season at Double-A Trenton in ’09 that caught some eyes, his second half at Triple-A Scranton was a step in the wrong direction.

As those linked prospect lists from prior to the 2010 season indicate, Nova was not a guy who received much attention in the system, even following a call-up for his major-league debut in a couple of emergency relief appearances. Baseball’s a silly game though, and a strong Triple-A season combined with the complete collapse of Javier Vazquez, the 23-year-old from San Cristobal was in the New York Yankees’ starting rotation.

Fast-forward 12 more months and Nova was suddenly the team’s second-best starter entering the 2011 playoffs. His MLB-rookie high 16 wins with only four losses earned him praise from the baseball purists, but he did not even need the old statistics to be worthy of such acclaim. He was in the AL’s top five in groundball percentage (52.7%) and a fine .290 wOBA against made him a difficult pitcher to hit (a very low home run rate did not hurt, either). Nova finished fourth in AL Rookie of the Year voting, and the Yankees sought more of the same performance from Nova with a full season under his belt. They did not get it.

Nova suffered the classic "sophomore slump" as more hitters in the league adjusted to his pitching and scouts improved their reports. An increase in velocity on his fastball and a subsequent rise in strikeout rate offered encouraging signs, yet the pitch was easily the worst of his primary three (fastball, curveball, slider). FanGraphs rated it as 1.63 runs below average per 100 pitches (-23.6 for the season), and PITCH f/X deemed it an unsightly -20.0 overall. Opposing batters hit .339/.417/.584 off his fastball, completely negating a curveball that was actually quite good (5.8 wCB, .226 wOBA against).

While he did begin to incorporate a decent slider more often to compensate for a horrible two-seam fastball, the bottom line was simply that Nova was not generating the grounders that propelled him to success in 2011. Instead, they were getting hit harder and 28 of them flew out of the park, the ninth-highest total in the league. His performance declined as the season went on, and it became increasingly hopeless for the Yankees to try to straighten him out. They left him out of the playoff rotation in favor of Phil Hughes and off the roster entirely in favor of David Phelps.

It was reported that Nova was not guaranteed a spot in the starting rotation for this upcoming season, but Hughes’s back injury will likely help Nova to a spot. It seems unlikely that the team would stick him in the bullpen anyway instead of Phelps since the latter proved effective out of the ‘pen last year and Nova’s made just four relief appearances since 2007 (Maybe the Yankees will surprise us and keep Phelps in the rotation anyway if he looks better than Nova, but I'm skeptical). It will get interesting however once Hughes returns and even more confusing if Michael Pineda forces himself into the mix during the summer.

Given Nova’s second half last year, the Yankees will be keeping a very close eye on him to determine whether 2011 was a fluke or not for Nova. He can help his case by making the necessary improvements to his fastball so it’s not such a hittable pitch—his curve and slider were fine last year, but it will be difficult for him to succeed if he can’t at least make his fastball a little better. IATMS reported a difference a difference in arm motion during his first Spring start the other day, so perhaps that is a step in the right direction.

Fans should wait to see how the season progresses and who has to miss time for injury before worrying too much about the returns from injury—as Nova proved in 2010, sometimes the unlikeliest candidates can emerge in the rotation. Nova will aim to surprise his doubters yet again.