Ivan Nova did not pitch particularly well on Sunday. He let 11 baserunners get on in five-plus innings, many to lead off the inning, and took 101 pitches to do it. This, following the 16th of April against the Diamondbacks when he let nine baserunners on and threw 94 pitches in five innings, though he gave up only two runs. Then there was his first start on the 5th against the Tigers, where he couldn't even finish the fifth inning, threw 96 pitches, let eight baserunners on, and gave up four runs. That's an average of 1.9 baserunners per inning, and his ERA stands at 6.14. The good news is he's striking out 1.09 batters per inning, which would be nice, if not for, y'know, everything else.
If this seems familiar, it should. In the second half of 2012, Nova allowed 1.72 baserunners per inning and had an ERA of 7.05, even though he struck out .88 batters per inning. Yes, the first three starts of the season is a small sample, but that sample looks to be continuing the trend we saw in July, August, and September 2012 (which kept him from pitching at all in October, after being the #2 starter in the postseason a year earlier).
Last year Nova became more of a strikeout pitcher, but it seemed to come at the expense of effectiveness. While his strikeout total rose from 98 in 2011 to 153 in 2012, he also went from only 163 hits in '11 to 194 in '12. (His walk total, at least, remained even: 57 in '11, 56 in '12.)
Much more distressing, though, is the rise in strong contact. Of those 163 hits he gave up in the year he was a fourth-place Rookie of the Year candidate, 111 were singles, or 68%, with the remainder consisting of 37 doubles, two triples, and 13 homers. Of the 194 last year, only 107 were singles, or 55%. Almost half the hits he gave up were of the extra-base variety: 52 doubles, seven triples, and 28 home runs.
Right now the Yankees are defying expectations, sporting a 10-7 record, and have three starters going very strong, so they can afford to give Nova another shot or two at righting the ship, but only that. If the team starts playing down to their talent level, or if Kevin Youkilis or Travis Hafner suddenly remember that they're old and fragile and break, the team's going to rely on their pitching and defense to keep things going unless and until the Bronx M*A*S*H unit finally releases Mark Teixeira, Curtis Granderson, Derek Jeter, and Alex Rodriguez. David Phelps and Adam Warren are right here on the roster, though Phelps hasn't exactly been covering himself in glory, and Warren has mostly been sitting on his ass as the poster boy for the inanity of carrying 12 pitchers. (Seriously, why have a twelfth pitcher if he's only going to appear twice in 17 games? A pinch-hitter would be way more useful occupying that roster spot...) Vidal Nuno and Graham Stoneburner have both pitched well at Scranton (as has Chris Bootcheck) in an admittedly small sample (and also each have really cool names), and in an even smaller one (one game), Chien-Ming Wang looked very 2005-ish. Knowing the Yanks, they'll sooner try veterans Wang or Bootcheck if Nova continues to falter, forgetting that Wang had a career because they gave him a chance as a minor-leaguer when the big team struggled—for that matter, that's why Nova's here. Wang's unlikely to have anything left, whereas Nuno or Stoneburner or Warren might actually turn into the next Wang ca. 2005 or the next Nova ca. 2011.
The harder contact also makes it obvious that Nova's high-strikeout approach isn't working. It's possible he needs to go down to Scranton and work on stuff. It's possible he needs to go to the bullpen and work out his problems in garbage-time innings. It's possible he's just in a prolonged slump and will come out of it. Ironically, if the Yankees actually were doing as poorly as everyone predicted/feared they would, there'd be more incentive to let him work it out over time, but with the Yanks' position being so precarious, they can't afford to punt a(nother) position, not even fifth starter.
Nova's next start is against the Blue Jays on Friday at the Stadium. We'll see how much rope Joe Girardi gives him, but the Yankee bullpen has been typically-for-April shaky (it usually takes until June for everything to settle out), and there's a risk of the continued reliance on Nova to be shooting themselves in the foot for the sake of trying vainly to recapture what may have been one fluky good season.