No one expected Ivan Nova to contribute as much as he did in 2011: 165 1/3 innings, 3.70 ERA, and two starts in the division series. Ivan Nova was supposed to be a average-at-best young rotation candidate who would provide the Yankees some depth while the real impact players (Manuel Banuelos, Dellin Betances) developed in the minors. He ended up being quite valuable, and will likely place high rookie of the year voting.
Given the state of the Yankee pitching depth and his 2011 success, its obvious that the Yankees are going to hand him a rotation spot before spring training and count on some real production out of Nova. That’s fine. But when assembling a team that the Yankees think can make it to the playoffs, they need to figure out what they can expect of Nova – both in 2012 and beyond.
I think that there is some serious disappointment danger with Nova. There’s nothing in his minor league track record to suggest that Nova is as good as he pitched late in last season. He’s got a serious SO/BB problem that he can only make up by allowing exceptionally weak contact. That doesn’t mean that its impossible that Nova succeeds as a major league pitcher, just that the odds are against him. We normally take debut performances for young rookies and expect them to improve over time. We really shouldn’t Nova to improve on his 3.70 ERA.
Now, the news isn’t all bad. Nova has a lot of things going for him. First and foremost, he’s the rare rookie pitcher who can throw 200 innings in his second season without any real workload concerns. Nova threw 189 2.3 innings between the majors, minors and postseason in 2011, a small bump up from the 187 he pitched in 2010. Unlike Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain (and for that matter, 2012 Banuelos and Betances), the Yankees can let Ivan Nova loose without any serious restrictions. There’s serious value in that, even if he doesn’t pitch to such a low ERA.
What should we expect out of Nova? We’re still waiting on PECOTA et al. to come out, so we don’t have a guide there yet. I’d be very satisfied if he pitched something like 34 starts, 200 innings, and a 4.00 ERA. That said, I think he’s more likely to have an ERA closer to 4.50 than 3.50. He’s got to improve on his game in some non-trivial way in order to bring it to the next level. That may mean striking out more batters (this is anecdotal but, his curveball seemed downright filthy at times in late September and Game 1) but more likely it means keeping free passes under control.
I think that Nova is a valuable starting pitcher for the Yankees to hold over the next five years. I think that he’ll be a reliable innings eater, fulfilling the kind of role that Joe Blanton fulfilled for so long. But I don’t think he’s a substitute for a better pitcher – be it Manuel Banuelos or C.J. Wilson or Matt Cain or Yu Darvish. The Yankees should count their blessing that they have a #4-type starter under cheap team control for some time now, but still plan for ambitious future upgrades to the rotation to back up C.C. Sabathia. In other words, we shouldn’t want to be in a situation where Ivan Nova throws 2 games in a playoff series ever again.
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