There is a lot to like about Ivan Nova. He has a fastball that sits around 93 and can get up to 95-96, a curve that looks pretty to the naked a eye, and he uses his stuff to get plenty of groundballs and keep the ball in the park. He reportedly has good makeup on the mound, has little injury history to speak of, and has already built up his innings to the point where he is without limits at 24. However, one issue that has plagued him throughout his minor league career and has capped his ceiling at 4th or 5th starter in the AL East is his lack of a true out pitch. Although his fastball and curve seem to the novice eye to be strikeout pitches, they apparently lack the deception needed to fool MLB hitters. Nova has long struggled to get swinging strikes at all, let alone strikeouts, and it is hard to see him becoming a frontline starter in this division without that ability. However, Nova has recently begun throwing a slider, and that pitch could change alter the course of Nova’s career.
According to Lucas Apostoleris of Don’t Bring In The Lefty, Nova dabbled with the slider for the first part of the season, ditched it, and then began to fully integrate it into his repertoire starting on June 4th. The numbers since that point are pretty staggering: a 2.92 ERA, 40 K’s and 14 BB in 52.1 innings. That brings him up to 3.81 ERA and 4.12 FIP on the season, which are very solid numbers for a rookie starter in the AL East. Last night served as an eye-opener regarding the new pitch, as Nova threw it 25 times and got 11 swinging strikes on it on the way to 10 strikeouts. That is 11 swinging strikes for a pitcher who would sometimes take weeks to rack up that many whiffs. As RLYW highlighted, Nova is striking out many more batters and has reduced his walks since the slider was unveiled, which is certainly something of an eye-opener.
This has all happened in a fairly small sample, and every pitcher goes through stretches that make you believe they may be more talented than they actually are. But where we have a definitive reason to believe something has changed, as we did with Curtis Granderson and Jose Bautista‘s swing alterations and we do now with Nova’s slider, it is reasonable to lend some import to the changes wrought by the new variable, small sample or not. I am generally skeptical of treating new pitches as a magic elixir that can radically alter a player’s fortunes, as each spring training we hear about new pitches that typically amount to nothing. But in this case, Nova talked about adding the slider, tinkered with it, and has now implemented it with strong results. It would be folly to dismiss it out of hand as a fluke just because pitchers usually do not add strikeout pitches over a span of a few weeks. He is throwing it for strikes and batters are swinging and missing it. That is a tangible effect that should factor into how we evaluate Nova. If it is real, it would certainly raise Nova’s ceiling.
All that being said, it is way too early to conclude that Nova will be wildly effective with the pitch going forward. Once the pitch is scouted extensively, batters may have an easier time dealing with it, and it is possible that Nova’s new found ability to miss bats will then largely dissipate. Furthermore, while I noted that we cannot automatically assume that the sample size is responsible for distorting our conclusions, it is definitely possible that Nova is just in a stretch of solid pitching and that the recent effectiveness of the slider is just an anomaly. We need a lot more evidence before we can project Nova to be much more than a back-end starter in this division. That said, I think that it is reasonable to be at least mildly excited about Ivan Nova and his new slider.
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