Ivan Nova in the second half of last season was, at the very least, the second best starting pitcher on the best team in the American League. 8-0 with a 3.18 ERA and a 2.35 K/BB rate, the late-blooming Dominican right hander with a big body and big stuff looked to be putting everything together at just the right time. Old for a sophomore, but still a ways from his peak at 25, the question with Nova is no longer whether he can prove a legitimate prospect, make it to the highest levels, or survive in the Bronx. The question is whether his ultimate upside remains that of a back rotation starter, or whether his 95-MPH fastball, his slider, and his propensity to induce groundballs can make him more than that.
Nova’s greatest asset is that ability to induce groundballs, at a greater than 50% rate in each of the past two seasons. For a righty in Yankee Stadium this is a must, and with a 0.71 HR/9 last season, it’s no wonder Nova was able to maintain an ERA under 4.00. Preventing the long balls, and to a lesser extent the doubles and triples, that go along with a high flyball rate is a large part of the battle Major League pitchers face. In this division, park, and league, a high ground ball rate can be a career saver.
The young righty also, of course, has a reasonable ability to control the baseball. He’s no Greg Maddux, but things are trending in the right direction. After walking 3.8 batters per nine between Trenton and Scranton two seasons ago, he limited those walks to just over 3.1 per nine between AAA and MLB in 2010. Spending most of last season in the big leagues, his combined walk rate in 2011 dropped to just over 2.9 per nine. As he’s climbed the lader, facing progressively better competition, he’s become more confident in his ability to get the ball over the plate without being hit around.
The groundballs are great. The control is getting there. But what about the strikeouts? For a young pitcher with his stuff, especially one who doesn’t spend an exceptional amount of time in the zone, you’d want more strikeouts and for Nova to become more than what he is he’s going to have to miss more bats.
It’s worth pointing out that Ivan Nova’s stat line last season, while impressive, was not unprecedented in recent history. There have been a string of prospects to come to the big leagues with solid control, the ability to induce groundballs, but stuff not yet harnessed for the purposes of striking batters out. Over the past 20 years baseball has seen 13 pitchers with a strikeout rate less than six and a half per nine, a walk rate less than four per nine, and less than a home run per nine innings in their rookie seasons. These aren’t the fireballers, or the future aces, but there are some decent pitchers in there. Andy Pettite for one. Hiroki Kuroda. Kris Benson. Donovan Osborne. Among recent examples, guys like Zach Britton and Rick Porcello, Nova is ahead of the curve.
Chien Ming Wang would make the list, had he pitched enough innings in 2005, but on some level I doubt the comparison is fair to either pitcher. Nova’s stuff is more impressive. He’s a much more polished pitcher at this point and his strikeout numbers are far better. Wang was a one-trick pony. A very good trick it was, but when that sinker wasn’t sinking he was dead. Nova’s a more complete player already, and I think there’s enough in place for some improvement going forward. Yet he’s never going to have that one dominant pitch the way Wang was and path forward with Nova is not so clear. Wang’s sinker was so good, he competed for Cy Young’s. Nova is a more conventional pitcher and his development will likewise be more conventional.
The question then is whether the strikeouts will appear. If not, he is far from doomed. That old breed of pitchers, the Dereke Lowes and the Kurodas, are really good pieces. But figuring out how to miss bats could make Ivan Nova the next Andy Pettitte. And we’d all like that. There are some encouraging signs. Nova adjusts to leagues, like most young pitchers, but his strikeout numbers are particularly subject to such adjustments. After striking out fewer than five per nine in his full season debut, he saw an increase of nearly two full K/9 upon promotion to high-A. The next season, placed in the high minors with very little experience, his strikeout rate stayed below six at AA and AAA. But the next season, repeating Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, he struck out a full seven batters per nine innings.
Even within season, we saw a major improvement in 2011. His early season strikeout numbers were around five per nine, in line with his cup of coffee in 2010. But in the second half he struck out nearly six per nine. Not only that, he missed bats without sacrificing control. He was in the zone. He was just throwing better pitches and his walk rate plummeted, sending his K/BB rate well above two.
I’ve never been Ivan Nova’s biggest fan, and that reluctance to embrace him a prospect, and then as a Yankee, had a lot to do with the lack of strikeouts. But for a guy with his raw ability the development we’ve seen is very encouraging. He moves quickly. He struggles at a level, but eventually he begins to improve. He improves rapidly in all facets of the game. He becomes more confident, he throws more strikes, and then finally he throws better strikes. With these improvements come fewer walks, then more strikeouts, and eventually a lower ERA. We saw this in the minor leagues. We’ve seen this so far in his short Major League career. Small sample size not withstanding, I wouldn’t expect a sophomore slump. In fact there’s a very good chance, even should his ERA rise, that 2012 is a major step forward for the Yankees fourth or fifth starter.
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