It is all but certain that Ivan Nova is going to make a playoff start for the Yankees this season. Given the erratic recent play the Yankees have gotten from Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon, it is entirely possible that Nova will be asked to take the mound early in a postseason series, against a more established pitcher. With that in mind, it is high time to take a look at how Nova has done this season.
In 151.1 innings of work, Nova has pitched to a 3.81/4.05/4.12 ERA/FIP/xFIP slash line, which translates to a 92 ERA- and a 99 FIP-. That is solid regular season performance, comparable to the 91 ERA- and 92 FIP- that the Yankees got from Andy Pettitte in 2009. While most of the talk of Nova’s performance has focused on his wins total of 15 this year (yawn), the real story is that a pitcher who was slightly below average in 2010 (103 FIP-) has improved this year, albeit not by as much as the media would make you think.
Nova’s repertoire has changed since last season. In 2010 he threw his fastball 64% of the time, his curveball 23% of the time and his changeup 11% of the time. Of the three pitches, only the curveball was a plus pitch, worth 3.7 runs over his entire cup of coffee season while the other two offerings were largely benign. As a result, Nova lived and died by his curveball. When it was working, and getting called for strikes, he looked great, but when he couldn’t locate it he lacked an out pitch and got creamed.
This season, Nova throws his fastball about the same amount of the time (62%) but he has mixed in his slider, throwing it 11% of the time, largely to the detriment of his changeup, which he now throws just 5% of the time. The slider has been Nova’s best pitch, his out pitch when he’s getting strike outs (a rarity). Its been worth 4.1 runs above average, but he has also improved his fastball, taking it from being a slightly below average pitch in 2010 to one that has been worth 2.5 runs so far in 2011. Nova’s other two pitches, meanwhile, remain slightly below average offerings, good enough to mix in to keep batters off balance.
Given that the effectiveness of a pitcher’s secondary offerings can change from season to season, it is important that Nova is a legitimate three pitch pitcher with a chance to become a four pitch pitcher if he can master his changeup. Beyond that, he has demonstrated two plus out pitches in the past two seasons, in his curveball and his slider. If he can learn to use each of those pitches effectively over the same stretch of time, something he hasn’t done yet, he’ll emerge as a solid big league starter, if he isn’t already.
Ivan Nova has demonstrated that he has the tools he needs to succeed into the future in the Yankee rotation, which is akin to saying in October, when all Yankee pitchers are required to step up. The problem, of course, is that he hasn’t had the opportunity to do that yet, something that will change in a few weeks. There is nothing in the data to suggest that Nova has been getting lucky. In fact, he’s now put together 193.1 innings of 99 FIP- pitching in the big leagues, which isn’t spectacular but is good enough to do the job.
The talk of the Yankees’ second October starter is a fake controversy. Apart from the fact that the third and fourth games also count in postseason baseball, the offense and the bullpen play a role in any given game as well. Even if the Yankees starter in game two in a postseason series completely implodes, the Yankees will still have a chance to win the game. Given all that, the idea of Ivan Nova backing up CC Sabathia in October is just fine.
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