Over his last 3 starts, Ivan Nova has gone 2-0 with a 1.35 ERA in 20 innings, to push his overall ERA to 4.08 and give some people hope that he can be a solid starter at the rear of the Yankee rotation. However, a look at his peripherals shows that his positive results may be a bit of a mirage, and that his skill level lies closer to his 4.61 xFIP than his ERA.
The first thing you’ll notice is that he strikes out an absurdly low number of batters for a pitcher with his stuff. This is not a new issue, as his minor league K-rate was equally unimpressive (6.3/9), and I would not expect him to suddenly start striking out a lot more batters at the major league level. Among the 127 pitchers who were good enough to throw at least 120 innings in the majors last season, only 6 had a worse K-rate than the one Nova is sporting right now, and his career K-rate of 5.12 per 9 innings would have tied him for 107th in baseball. Unlike some of the pitchers who have been able to find success without strikeouts, Nova compounds the problem by walking plenty of hitters, with a 3.84 rate thus far in his career. Of pitchers who struck out fewer than 5.5 batters per 9 innings last season, only Aaron Cook and Mitch Talbot walked that many, and neither was particularly successful in 2010. To be honest, it was difficult to find anyone who was successful in MLB last year with the K and BB tendencies that Nova has exhibited.
Moving on to batted ball data, Nova has gotten lucky in terms of limiting home runs thus far, as he has allowed home runs on an unsustainably low 2.8% of flyballs. While he has always been able to keep his home run rate (HR/9) low, it should experience something of a correction over the coming months, which will drive his ERA up towards the 4.60 number suggested above.
Finally, a look at groundball rate provides what can be Nova’s saving grace. Nova is inducing grounders on 54.1% of batted balls, which would have placed him 12th last season among pitchers with at least 120 IP. Inducing ground balls can help limit big innings and erase baserunners through double plays, which somewhat mitigates Nova’s inability to avoid contact and his penchant for issuing free passes. Without that ability, Nova would not be a MLB quality starter, but the GB% is good enough that he should be able to have success as a back of the rotation hurler.
I am not saying that Nova will never be better than a 4.4-4.6 ERA #4 starter. If he can find a way to increase his strikeouts, limit his walks, or induce even more grounders, he should be able to take the next step and become a mid-rotation guy for a god team. But as of now, for 2011, I do not think it is realistic to expect him to sustain his recent performance or finish the season with a stat line quite as good as his current ERA might suggest.
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