Ivan Nova‘s first three starts of 2012 were a collective lesson in tight-rope walking. Though he gave up 25 hits in the 19 innings he pitched, he only allowed 8 earned runs, good for a 3.79 ERA. He was able to mitigate the hits by not putting anyone else on base (2 walks and 1 HBP) and striking out 20. But, perhaps the proverbial writing was on the wall; Nova had a 4.15 FIP in that time and was giving up an opponent’s batting line of .321/.346/.621/.987. To put a .987 OPS in context, that’s somewhere between Mark McGwire’s (.982) and Manny Ramriez’s (.996) career OPS marks (9th and 10th all time, btw). Somewhat predictably, Nova’s next two starts were pretty ugly. He pitched 11.2 innings and gave up 20 more hits and 11 runs (all earned) while walking 7 and striking out only 8; he also gave up 2 home runs. His batting line against was a horrific .370/.452/.630/1.081 over those two games. All told, Nova has given up a line of .342/.392/.636/1.028 (1.0288 is Albert Pujols‘ career OPS, btw). 25 of the 47 hits he’s given up (17 doubles, 2 triples, 6 homers) have gone for extra bases. Right now, his ERA sits at an ugly 5.58 and his FIP is at a slightly less ugly 4.75.
There is a bit of a bright spot, though. Nova’s xFIP is at a much more pleasant 3.80. This make a good deal of sense, considering he’s giving up homers at a ridiculous rate right now (16.7 HR/FB%), but it’s possible that xFIP is underrating Nova a little bit. Nova’s career rate, including this year is 9.9%. If we do that, his xFIP goes to 3.77; it’s not a huge difference, but it’s still a bit better. But even that underrates Nova a bit, because it takes into account this homer-happy season. If we remove 2012 and go on the 2010-2011 numbers, the bigger, more reliable sample, we get a HR/FB% of 8.6%. If we apply that rate to 2012, we’d get an xFIP of 3.57. It’s safe to say that Nova’s been getting a little unlucky on where his fly balls are landing, but when he’s getting hit as hard as he is now, it’s hard to point to luck as the culprit.
When I want to get a runs-based numerical output on how a guy is being hit, I go to StatCorner.com and look up what the player’s tRA and tRA+ are. This year, Nova’s tRA is 4.80 and his tRA+ (think ERA+ where higher is better and 100 is average) is 91. FanGraphs has a version of the stat and Nova doesn’t rate highly there this year, with a 5.32 tERA. That falls somewhere between the “poor” and “awful” ratings via FG. Given Nova’s slash line against and his tRA/tERA numbers, it’s pretty clear that Nova’s getting just absolutely pounded right now. Let’s see if we can find out why, using Nova’s Pitch F/X data.
Thus far, everything is going the way it shouldn’t or didn’t last year. For example, he’s getting fewer whiffs per swing on his fastball/changeup and is giving up more line drives per ball in play on each pitch while surrendering more fly balls per balls in play on the fastball and changeup. Like we saw above, the home run ball has been Nova’s biggest issue this year, and that’s fleshed out in the pitch breakdown. While his HR/FB% last season on Nova’s changeup was high (14.29%), it’s even worse this year at 20.00%. That could be because in both years, the velocity on the changeup has been just over 86 MPH, only about 6-8 MPH different than Nova’s fastball. It would seem that Nova’s changeup is essentially a BP fastball when guys are hitting it. He’ll need to improve his location on the pitch since the velocity gap is not nearly big enough for him to challenge hitters with it in the zone. Nova’s fastball is also getting hit out at a rate (9.52%) than last year’s (5.33%).
All of this is, of course, to say that Nova’s got a problem and he’s going to need to fix it. When a guy’s getting rocked by round-trippers like this, we can infer that location or predictability is a problem. If he’s going to regain effectiveness, Nova is going to need to put his pitches in better spots or mix them up a bit. The Yankees don’t need Nova to be much more than a solid #3 this year and he looked like that at the end of last year and through his first three starts this year (even superficially). Let’s hope he can regain that form going forward.
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