I get the sense that Yankee fans are very comfortable with tonight’s starting pitcher matchup. Ivan Nova, a rookie, goes against Doug Fischer, and our nerves are pretty calm. After Ivan Nova’s 2011 season, its easy to be. He was nearly unhittable against the Tigers in Game 1, and just as strong all through September (5 starts, 2.67 ERA), plus, you know, all the intangibles people love to mention. He hasn’t quite been “the best Yankee starter all year” (Bobby Valentine has been repeating the line on ESPN lately in an alternate universe where C.C. Sabathia doesn’t exist), but he’s been close enough to inspire confidence.
The strange thing about this is that I don’t think that a single person watching Nova as a prospect over the years even began to dream that he would be this good. I remember being asked questions about Ivan Nova along the lines, “This guy throws 96 with movement. Is he a top prospect” and answering, “Pretty much everyone says he’s all fastball, no secondary pitches, and with poor control” numerous times. The Yankees obviously had a similar opinion of Nova at the time – they left him unprotected in the 2008 Rule V draft, alongside (and picked after) such brand names as Reegie Corona and Zach Kroenke. He failed to make the San Diego Padres team out of the bullpen, and returned to the Yankee farm system.
Even after the Rule V return, Nova didn’t particularly distinguish himself from other pitcher prospects. He had a solid year between AA and AAA, posting a 3.68 ERA with a solid-but-not-amazing 1.82 G/A out ratio, and characteristically mediocre walk and strikeout rates. He didn’t really stand out until 2010 with his 2.86 ERA and improved strikeout rate. Still, he came off as a talent pitcher with serious flaws in his secondary pitches. His fastball might make him an average starter who could eat innings, but I don’t think that anyone envisioned the success he’s had so far. He looks absolutely dominant at times on the mound, and I don’t think there’s any doubt that Nova can be even better than he was this season.
So, what mistake did we all make? All of us who love to follow prospects (and the Yankee brass themselves, who left him unprotected in 2008) thought that Nova would be disappointing despite the velocity, and we were wrong. I can think of three principle reasons:
- Velocity. Seriously, you can’t teach 95. It was sexy a few years ago (I counted myself among this group for a long time, though I was correct sometimes) in the post-Moneyball era to disregard velocity. I think we’ve learned that sometimes you find your Chad Bradfords and C.J. Wilson’s, but for the most part you want to find your fireballers. Nova’s heavy, moving fastball is damn hard to make solid contact on, and its no coincidence that he draws comparisons to Chien-Ming Wang.
- Repeatability. If you don’t strike anyone out, walk batters at an average rate, and rely on weak-hit balls for outs, you are usually a mediocre pitcher. Every once in awhile, someone like Wang or Derek Lowe or Ivan Nova comes along and is able to use that model for success. The thing that I’ve noticed about Nova that was similar to Wang is that he is remarkably consistent. He pitches quickly, doesn’t hang a lot of fastballs, and pretty much throws the same stuff against a team every start. His curveball varies from start-to-start (it’s had some mighty nice bite to it over the last few starts), but everything else remains the same. As long as he keeps the ball down, throws enough strikes, and strikes out 50% more batters than Chien-Ming Wang did, he can keep putting together solid, quality starts.
- Coaching. Someone got to Ivan Nova and sharpened up his breaking pitches. He substituted out a changeup for a slider, and his curveball got much better, generating more swings and misses while maintaining his walk rate. That curve is a big reason why he’s so dominate right now, and I don’t think many people saw it coming a few years ago.
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