Ivan Nova's tenure with the Yankees has been filled with ups and downs. At times he has demonstrated the promise of becoming a front of the rotation starter, while at others his ceiling appeared to be that of a long-man out of the bullpen. While his performance has lacked consistency, one aspect of Nova's performance that is predictable is that he is at his best when he gets ground balls.
Good Nova was on display this past weekend against the White Sox, when Nova pitched five and two-thirds innings, allowing one run on four hits and one walk with two strikeouts. Most importantly, of the 21 balls put into play against him on Saturday afternoon, 15 were on the ground. That formula, inducing grounders while minimizing walks, has set Nova up for success throughout his career, and characterizes the periods when he has been most effective.
In 2011, Nova made 27 starts for the Yankees, pitching 165.1 innings. Over those innings he struck out just 98 batters (averaging 5.3 strikeouts per nine innings), yielded 57 walks (averaging 3.1 walks per nine innings), and had a ground ball to fly ball ratio of 1.17. Nova finished the year with an ERA of 3.70, a WHIP of 1.331, and placed fourth in the Rookie of the Year balloting. In short, he appeared poised to become a key cog in the rotation for many years to come.
2012 was a different story for Nova. Over 28 starts his ERA ballooned to 5.02, with a 1.468 WHIP, 153 strikeouts (8.1 strikeouts per nine innings), and a ground ball to fly ball ratio of 0.84. Notice that while Nova's strikeout numbers went up rather dramatically, this was offset by a sharp decline in his ground ball to fly ball ratio. The tradeoff was not favorable for Nova's overall performance.
Nova got off to a poor start in 2013, was placed on the DL with inflammation in his right triceps at the end of April, and then demoted to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre at the end of May. The Yankees recalled Nova on June 23, and he proceeded to thrive in a starting role for the remainder of the season. It is no surprise that this period of success culminated with Nova finishing the year with a ground ball to fly ball ratio of 1.16, which is nearly identical to that of his 2011 campaign.
Thus far in 2016 Nova has thrown just 24.1 innings, but over that small sample has a ground ball to fly ball ratio of 2.15. That pace will be difficult to maintain over the course of a full season, but it indicates that Nova is off to a strong start doing what he does best in keeping the ball on the ground.
Interestingly, for Nova, maximizing his fastball velocity is not essential to his performance, particularly when it comes to his efforts at inducing grounders. The figure below, courtesy of Brooks Baseball, tracks Nova's average annual fastball velocity since he broke into the Major Leagues in 2010. This year Nova is averaging a career low 93.28 mph release speed on his sinker, which is similar to the 93.39 mph he averaged in 2011.
At his best, and similar to other effective sinker-ball pitchers, Nova throws a "heavy" ball, that is defined more by its horizontal and vertical movement than by its speed. This characteristic of Nova's stuff was on full display on Saturday, when his sinker featured both pronounced downward tilt as well as movement in on the hands of right-handed batters. At this early stage in the season, Brooks Baseball reports that Nova's sinker is averaging approximately eight and a half inches of horizontal movement. This is the sharpest horizontal, fastball movement that Nova has displayed to this point in his career, and bodes well for his ability to continue to induce ground balls as the season progresses.
It is no secret that pitching is thin for the Yankees at the moment, particularly in the wake of Luis Severino's ineffectiveness and injury. CC Sabathia is penciled in to return from the DL on Friday, but even with his return, Nova can secure a permanent turn in the starting rotation if he is able to get consistent results in the weeks to come. Nova has every reason to want to pitch well as he will become a free agent at year's end, and given the lack of high-end starting pitching talent available, he could be in line for a big pay day if he can deliver on some of the promise he has shown in years past.
Such an enticing incentive provides Nova with added motivation to pursue an approach on the mound that enables him to maximize the number of quality innings he throws in 2016. For Nova, and for the Yankees, that approach entails inducing ground balls, and lots of them.