It's no secret that Ivan Nova has struggled in his return from Tommy John surgery. While he has been known for severe ups and downs in his major league career, his performance so far this season has left quite a bit to be desired. So far, Nova's posted a 4.50 ERA along with a 4.69 FIP. Yes, it's good just to see him healthy and pitching, especially as the Yankees deal with so many injuries, but perhaps the Yankees are using Nova in a way that may not cater best to his make up as a pitcher. Is it too extreme to suggest that Nova might be better suited to become a reliever?
No, I am not suggesting the Yankees move Nova into the pen RIGHT THIS INSTANT. Nathan Eovaldi has been shut down for a few weeks, CC Sabathia continues to be a question mark, and Michael Pineda and Masahiro Tanaka remain serious injury concerns in their own right. The rotation needs help, and Nova should stay in it. In the future, though, could Nova find more success coming out of the pen? His performance this year (and even over the course of his career) shows that he profiles in many ways as a relief pitcher. Here's why:
Reason #1: Nova only has three pitches
Most starters have a pretty extensive repertoire of reliable pitches. If not, they have at least a couple of elite pitches to pair with two or three more average offerings that they can mix in and out of their arsenal to fit the situation. Nova does not - Nova has just three pitches. He throws a four-seam fastball, a sinker, and a curve ball. This lack of variety gives hitters a better chance to make good contact, especially on their second and third time through the lineup. Less pitches means less variety, which means fewer surprises. He's thrown a few change ups here and there, but not enough to really matter, and he toyed with a slider in the past, but has completely abandoned it this year. His curveball is his out pitch, but neither of his fastballs are good enough for him to fool many hitters and collect strikeouts (just 5.47 K/9). Instead, he relies on keeping his pitches down in the zone so hitters roll over the top of them and hit the ball on the ground. He also has some command issues (3.04 BB/9), which further points to him finding more success in the pen.
Reason #2: One of those pitches - his four-seam fastball - is awful
Nova has thrown a four-seam fastball over 21% of the time this season. This would suggest he has at least some confidence in it. Some reasons for that confidence exist - it has decent velocity, yes (93.73 mph on average), and it has some good movement. Despite all this, though, Nova just cannot locate it. Here's where he's thrown his four-seamers this season:
That's a lot of fastballs in the middle of the plate. And here's another graph, showing you how often he's hit each section of the strike zone with his four-seamer. Notice where the biggest red spot is:
It's not ideal to throw fastballs down the middle, especially if you're not hitting the upper nineties in velocity. Predictably, hitters have crushed Nova's four-seamer, both this year and over the course of his career. According to Brooks Baseball, batters are hitting .297 with a .547 slugging percentage against his four-seam fastball this season (comparable to his career stats) with a .250 ISO. That's about what Paul Goldschmidt is hitting this year, by the way. This pitch is only a strike 26% of the time, misses very few bats (just 5.31 whiffs/swing this year) and induces few ground balls while being hit for line drives nearly a quarter of the time. All in all, Nova's throwing meatballs to hitters a fifth of the time - and over the course of a whole game, they're making him pay.
Reason #3: However, he's very effective with his sinker and curve
This is in no way to say that Nova is a bad pitcher. He just doesn't have a lot of great pitches. He does have two of them, however: his sinker and his curveball. Nova's sinker is one of the better ones in the game - he has the 19th best downward movement on his sinker this season - and the results back it up: hitters have managed just a .146 ISO against it while hitting a groundball on 63% of the sinkers they put in play in 2015. In 2013, his last healthy (and good) season, they hit even more grounders than they have this year, so there's hope that Nova's sinker will get better and better the farther away he moves from Tommy John surgery. He's also an expert at locating it down and on the corners, as you'll see here:
Since this is the pitch he throws the most, all this bodes quite well for his success. This devastating pitch would be even more devastating if hitters only saw it once or twice in a game, instead of multiple times as Nova goes through the lineup over and over.
His curveball also flummoxes hitters, and it's his ace in the hole. This season, it's his second most used pitch and has generated 36 whiffs per swing and ground balls on almost 50% of these hooking beauties opposing hitters manage to put in play. With a terrific breaking ball like this, coupled with his above-average sinker to get weak contact, Nova has two solid pitches that should shine in an inning or two of work.
Nova won't be going to the bullpen anytime soon, and he should still be given a chance to regain the form that excited so many Yankee fans from 2011-2013. However, his limited arsenal of pitches makes sustained success as a starter less likely since his nasty curveball and solid sinker would be more effective in less innings out of the bullpen. Considering how inconsistent Nova's been over the course of his career, it makes sense that the Yankees should see if Nova might best serve the team in a relief role as a ground ball specialist. Now is not the time, but at the beginning of 2016, depending on what shape the Yankees rotation is in, the Yankees brass should experiment and see if Nova can find a role in front of Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances to become a true three-headed monster awaiting opposing teams at the backend of ballgames.