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Looking back on Ivan Nova’s greatest Yankees starts

Nova’s name is on the trading block, so if this is farewell, let’s remember the good times.

Baltimore Orioles v New York Yankees Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

The Yankees have reached the point where they’re ready to trade away Ivan Nova. He’s not a qualifying offer candidate and they have no plans of signing him as a free agent. The team would like to recoup something of value before he signs elsewhere. Whether they can find a taker for him, however, is up in the air.

If the front office manages to move Nova before the August 1st non-waiver trading deadline, his final start as a Yankee will have been an unspectacular one. He allowed five runs over four and a third innings against the last place Tampa Bay Rays. He fired his glove in disgust as he entered the dugout. That would certainly be exiting on a down note.

During his Yankees tenure, Nova reeled off some fine starts. He held his own more often than not and occasionally flashed brilliance. This post is going to take a look at his five best starting performances according to game score, a framework measuring the quality of a start. Here’s a quick and useful primer on the metric. Is it a perfect tool? No, but it will work just fine for us.

5. August 3, 2013 at San Diego (box score) (PSA recap) (video)
Pitching Line: 7 IP, 4 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 8 K, 86 pitches Game Score: 76

The odds of the Yankees making a playoff run were growing slim by this point in 2013. Heading into the game, they were solidly in fourth place, eight and a half games out in the AL East. Not much was going right for the Yankees, but Nova had been pitching very well in the second half.

Nova seemed to get off to a rocky start, but he never let the floodgates open. He put runners on base but erased them quickly. In the first inning he escaped a one out, two on situation by getting the next two Padres to ground out. He generated a healthy ten groundouts on the night. He also struck out eight, baffling hitters with a nasty curveball. Perhaps the most impressive part of this game is a stretch of twelve consecutive batters retired. I know that the 2013 Padres lineup wasn’t exactly Murderer’s Row, but that’s a heck of an accomplishment.

4. June 20, 2011 at Cincinnati (box score) (PSA recap) (video)
Pitching Line: 8 IP, 4 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 0 BB, 7 K, 105 Pitches
Game Score: 77

I consider this game was Nova’s breakout party. Prior to this start, he had a 4.46 ERA and opponents batted .276 against him. He was a serviceable back end of the rotation type, but he completely dominated the Reds. No walks and seven strikeouts over eight innings is awesome, but more impressive is the fourteen ground ball outs he generated. That’s ace-like.

You could argue that this was the most devastating sinker/curveball combination Nova has ever had. He’s at his best when those two pitches are on, and in this game they were A+ grade worthy. Nova has always been a frustrating pitcher. He often teases you with glimpses of brilliance within a start. But when he’s on, it’s clear that he can keep a lineup quiet.

3. September 21, 2013 versus San Francisco (box score) (PSA recap) (video)
Pitching Line: 9 IP, 6 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 7 K, 108 pitches Game Score: 81

The 2013 Yankees were struggling to stay alive by late September. In fact, they would be mathematically eliminated five days later. The pitching staff was one of the team’s redeeming qualities, and Nova was a bright spot. He continued his second half dominance with a complete game shut out against the reigning World Series champions.

Nova was in complete control from start to finish. He only allowed two runners, Pablo Sandoval and Brandon Belt, to get into scoring position. His ground ball game was also on full display; he induced 15 of them. The Giants never had a chance against the Super Nova in this game.

2. July 5, 2013 versus Baltimore (box score) (PSA recap) (video)
Pitching Line: 9 IP, 3 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 1 BB, 11 K, 102 pitches
Game Score: 83

Ah yes, the Nova complete game/Vernon Wells walk-off win. How could anyone forget this Yankees classic? Nova actually got off to a shaky start in this one, allowing a two-run home run to Matt Wieters in the second inning. The wall-scraper came off of a 93 mph fastball up and right over the plate. It was a pretty bad pitch. Rather than melting down on the mound, Nova decided he wouldn’t allow another run for the rest of the season.

Okay, that’s only a slight exaggeration. This game marks the beginning of Nova’s insane second half run that saw him dominate for essentially all of July and August. He struck out 11 over the complete game effort, and his fastball registered as high as 96 mph. Nova reared back and the O’s had no answer. Believe it or not, this is only the second best start Nova had against Baltimore that summer.

1. August 31, 2013 versus Baltimore (box score) (PSA recap) (video)
Pitching Line: 9 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 5 K, 104 pitches
Game Score: 85

While researching this article, I learned that Nova dominated the second half of 2013 and that Matt Ferenchick recapped most of those games. For the second time in two months, Nova went the distance against the O’s. This time he didn’t allow any runs. This game was actually a bit of an anomaly compared to the others, as Nova got more fly ball outs (13) than he did on the ground (10).

Nova found himself in trouble in the second inning, putting two men on with no outs. He recovered quickly, however, getting Nick Markakis to ground into a double play before J.J. Hardy flew out. After that, the O’s never got to string anything together off of Nova. He finished the shutout and subsequently was named the American League Pitcher of the Month for August. He went 4-0 in six games, posting a 2.08 ERA with 31 strike outs over that span. What a stud.

If Nova gets traded before the deadline, he will finish his Yankees career with a 53 - 39 record and a 4.41 ERA. That’s not bad at all for the relatively unheralded amateur free agent who signed way back in 2004. He had his flops, but he also dazzled. Wherever he ends up, if he switches uniforms, I wish him the best. Happy trails, Super Nova.

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference