Perhaps the biggest surprise in the Yankees’ 2011 season was the emergence of Ivan Nova as a middle rotation arm and the Bombers second best pitcher down the stretch. Entering the season Nova wasn’t assured a spot in the rotation. He lost his job temporarily when Phil Hughes returned from the DL. Despite all that he was undoubtedly the Yankees’ number two arm entering the playoffs.
After perennially undervaluing Nova, the Yankees have now made him a key component of their 2012 season plans. Barring a surprise signing, Ivan figures to be the number two arm in the Yankee rotation. He has the potential to stay in that rotation for years to come. He doesn’t even need to improve to do it (although that would be nice). He just needs to be able to give the team the performance he gave them in 2011 over the course of a full season on a consistent basis. That basis begins in 2012.
Nova has improved each of his two major league seasons, but there isn’t much data to use to make projections for how he will perform in 2012. In 2010 he logged 42.0 innings for the Yankees, with a pitcher’s slash line of 4.50/4.35/4.36. That translated into an fWAR of 0.5. In 2011 he improved across the board. He pitched 165.1 innings for the Yankees, with a slash line of 3.70/4.01/4.16 for a 2.7 fWAR. Despite that total improvement, the prediction systems don’t love Nova for 2012. The eternally optimistic Bill James, for example, predicts 183.0 innings of work for Nova in 2012, with an ERA of 4.28 and a FIP of 4.11. That would mean Nova’s overall contribution to the team would be largely unchanged. He’d log more innings, but the innings would be slightly worse.
James’ 2012 projection, or any projection for Nova, overlooks how little big league data he has provided analysts thus far in his career. When I originally conceived of this post I had wanted to lean on Baseball Reference’s player similarity scores rather heavily, figuring that one of the shrewdest ways to understand Nova’s 2012 potential was to examine what similar players had done at similar points in their careers. Unfortunately, Nova’s stats largely tricked the system. B-ref says that through age 24 Nova is most similar to Anibal Sanchez and Ray Washburn. Sanchez pitched only 51.2 innings his age 24 season, more than 100 fewer than Nova, while Washburn got injured his age 25 season, something that seems unlikely for the durable Nova (knock on wood). The truth is that after providing analysts with just 200 total innings to work with in his major league career, Nova will have produced stats similar to hundreds of players. Advanced projections won’t be accurate.
Most projection systems also won’t adjust for the changes Nova made during the 2011 season. In 2010 Nova was criticized for lacking a true out pitch. That season he primarily used a 93 mph fastball, throwing it 64.1% of the time, complimenting it with a curveball that he used 23.2% of the time and a changeup 10.6% of the time. The curve was his best pitch, being worth 2.2 runs for every 100 he threw. When the curve wasn’t working, however, Nova ran up his pitch count and was vulnerable.
After he returned from the minors in the second half of 2011 Nova featured an improved slider. That combined with a fastball that he improved from 2010 to give him a more effective swing and miss pitch. In effect Nova swapped his changeup for his slider in 2011. He threw the change only 4.6% of the time, less than half the time he went to it in 2010, and used the slider 11.5% of the time, substantially more than the 2.1% he used in 2010. The net effect was that Nova was a different pitcher in 2011, one who could turn to either a slider or a curveball to get batters out.
Critics will rightly point out that of Nova’s four offerings, none was particularly good in 2011. His fastball was worth only 0.08 runs for every 100 thrown, while his slider, curve and change came in at 0.56, -0.39 and -0.56 respectively. While it is true that Nova didn’t feature any one dominant pitch, simply having four different offerings that won’t get him killed goes a long way in the majors. Andy Pettitte is a perfect example (let me nip this one in the bud right now: I am NOT saying Nova has Pettitte potential, only using Pettitte as an example to prove a point). In 2009 and 2010 Pettitte was highly effective as a starter, but featured only two plus pitches, his cutter and his curveball. His other offerings were all below average, but he was able to mix his pitches incredibly well. If Nova can mix his pitches at all competently he will be successful.
With that in mind, I have faith in Nova. This is no small feat because the Yankees haven’t developed a starter since Pettitte. The team came close with Hughes, but right now he can’t be called a successful starter. Nova is two full seasons away from being considered a legitimate success. In 2012 success can be defined as extending his 4.01 FIP over the course of 31 or more starts, or 185 or more innings. That is less of a stretch than it might at first seem. It only requires Nova to make three or four more starts than he did in 2011, at roughly the same level of production. The net contribution, however, would be large. That would add about 0.5 fWAR to Nova’s total, making him roughly a 3.2 or 3.3 fWAR pitcher, which is about what the White Sox got from John Danks in 2011.
That may seem like a leap for Nova, but it becomes more plausible when his 2011 and 2010 numbers are examined closely. All Nova has to do is maintain his current pace without getting hurt. He’s gotten marginally better each season of his career, and has proven durable thus far. All young pitchers are risky assets. It can’t be ruled out that Nova will regress or get injured, but right now he projects to have a respectable 2012.
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