A great philosopher of our time once said, "Will the real Ivan Nova please stand up?" (or something like that). Mr. Mathers has a point: Ivan Nova has been the epitome of inconsistent throughout his tenure with the Yankees. On days when Nova's dynamic curveball is working, he is someone fans can dream on. However, these days have been few and far between, leading the Yankees to make a concerted effort to somehow slip him onto another team's roster (AKA, trade him for something, anything really).
Those with confidence in Ivan Nova generally cite Nova's 2013 season as evidence of his true talent. In 2013, Nova pitched to a 3.10 ERA (3.47 FIP) in 20 games started (139.1 innings) and was overall worth 2.5 WAR for the season. He posted 7.49 K/9 and 2.84 BB/9 rates that season, in addition to a 53.5% ground ball rate (that year, the average ground ball rate for pitchers was 44.5%). He also only allowed 0.58 HR/9 in 2013.
Nova also pitched well in 2011. He pitched 165.1 innings (he started 27 games) and posted a 3.70 ERA (4.01 FIP); he was worth 2.3 WAR overall. He had worse strikeout and walk rates than 2013, 5.33 K/9 and 3.10 BB/9, but his above-average ground ball rate of 52.7% (the average that year was 44.4%) coupled with the fact that hitters made soft contact 23.6% percent of the time prevented him from being hit hard.
A summary of Nova's 2011 and 2013 statistics is outlined in the table below.
Based solely on his stats from 2011 and 2013, it is no wonder that some fans believe in Ivan Nova and foresee him being valuable to the 2016 Yankees. However, time doesn't work that way; unfortunately for Nova, the years 2010, 2012, 2014, and 2015 did happen, and they subsequently lowered the expectations of many fans for what Ivan Nova can accomplish. The statistics from his down years are displayed in the table below.
Clearly Nova has not exactly been an image of consistency throughout his career. Even within his down years, there are major discrepancies between the same statistic from year to year and it seems as though he was not able to put it all together. In 2010 he was able to keep his HR/9 down and his ground ball percentage up, but he was unable to effectively strike out hitters and he walked far too many batters. In 2012 Nova boosted his strikeout rates and lowered his walk rates, but his ground ball percentage was average and he gave up too many home runs. Nova's 2014 season was shortened by Tommy John surgery, but Nova was not at all effective prior to tearing his UCL despite lowering his walk rate and raising his ground ball rate (this makes sense considering his high HR/9 rate).
Fans eagerly awaited Nova's return to the rotation in 2015 with the hope that Nova would be able to pitch like the better of his old selves (the self of 2011 and 2013). The excitement regarding Nova's potential soared following his first start back from Tommy John surgery on June 24th, in which he pitched 6.2 innings of shutout ball against the fearsome (ok, maybe this is a slight exaggeration) Phillies. Nova had a couple of decent starts following that game, but soon things began to unravel. While overall in 2015 Nova's K/9 increased from its 2014 level, so did his BB/9. He also continued to allow far too many home runs (Pinstripe Alley gave him a grade of "D" for his performance this season).
Nova's struggles in 2015 could definitely be attributed to his return from Tommy John Surgery, as experts agree that a pitcher does not return to pre-surgery form until a year or even two following the surgery. That being said, no such explanation exists for the 2010, 2012, and 2014 seasons.
I am not an expert, but one potential reason for Nova's varied performance each year could be that he doesn't seem to consistently use the same pitches from season to season. The chart below from Brooks Baseball illustrates this phenomenon quite well.
Following Nova's poor performance in 2015, his trade value is currently quite low, so he will almost certainly be a Yankee in 2016 (unless #NinjaCash strikes again). Nova would certainly be quite valuable to the 2016 Yankees If he pitches like he did in 2011 and 2013. In fact, that would ideal. However, we know Ivan Nova is not the most consistent pitcher, both in pitch selection and performance. Thus, the Yankees do not know which Ivan Nova will show up in 2016 (I vote for a new, ace-like Ivan Nova to appear).
It is hard to know what to expect from Nova in 2016. If bad Nova arrives once again in 2016, can he be valuable in any way to the Yankees? The answer is yes, he definitely can, but most likely only if he manages to do something he has never done before: pitch 200 innings or more. The Yankees need a starting pitcher who can give them innings, and I'm not entirely sure injury risks Masahiro Tanaka, Michael Pineda, Nathan Eovaldi, and CC Sabathia will be able to pitch deep into games as often as the Yankees would like. The Yankees do have Luis Severino, but he has never pitched more than 160 innings in a season and is a whopping 11 games into his big league career.
Cashman himself expressed confidence in Nova's ability to pitch deep into games for the Yankees, if nothing else. He said the following in an offseason interview:
Who’s more likely to give me 200 innings next year? I would easily say Nova, I feel comfortable about that. I feel comfortable about his health. Now the requisite time frame has obviously passed on the Tommy John recovery process.
Overall, Ivan Nova is a bit of a mystery. The Yankees are hopeful that good Nova stands up this year and asserts himself as the "real Ivan Nova," but there is a large chance that won't happen. In the case that ineffective Nova returns, he can still be valuable to the team if he is able to become the workhorse of the pitching staff.
All statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Brooks Baseball.