Chris Moran is a second-year law student at Washington University in St. Louis. He is also an assistant coach with the baseball team at Washington University. He graduated from Wheaton College, where he wore the tools of ignorance for the baseball team. Follow him on twitter @hangingslurves.
New York Yankees right-hander Ivan Nova has had an up-and-down career. After winning a rotation spot out of spring training in 2011, Nova went 16-4 with a 3.70 ERA. 2012 saw Nova getting hit hard. While great run support helped him compile a 12-8 record, he surrendered 28 homeruns in 170.1 innings, the 6th highest rate in the majors. With all those homeruns, Nova’s ERA climbed all the way to 5.02.
Despite the elevated ERA, Nova showed improvements in 2012. His strikeout rate jumped from 13.9% to 20.5%, and his walk rate fell from 8.1% to 7.5%. His xFIP fell from 4.16 to 3.92. Major culprits were a bloated BABIP of .331, and a HR/FB ratio that nearly doubled from 8.4% to 16.6%.
After four starts to begin 2013, Nova went on the DL with triceps inflammation. It would be more than two months before he won his rotation spot back. However, by the end of the year, Nova would lead the Yankees rotation in ERA and strikeout and groundball rate respectively.
Given the success he had from July-September, can Ivan Nova be a top starter for the Yankees in 2014?
Nova’s walk and strikeout rates were essentially the same in 2013 as in 2012. His HR/FB ratio fell back down to 8.4%, and his BABIP dropped to .313. Furthermore, he stranded runners at a much higher rate.
While the peripherals were very similar, Nova also made some significant pitching adjustments. One of these adjustments was focus on getting more groundballs, something he did very well in 2011.
Nova scrapped his slider, and instead threw more fastballs and curveballs. Though the slider had a strong whiff rate in 2012, it got hit very hard when batters did manage to make contact. The curveball has always served Nova well, and it combined decent whiff rates with lots of groundballs. Even after scrapping the slider, Nova produced a slightly higher whiff rate in 2013.
Though Nova threw more fastballs, he threw fewer four-seam fastballs, and more two-seamers. In 2012, the vast majority of Nova’s fastballs were four-seamers, and only two pitchers saw their four-seam fastball get hit harder than Nova’s.
In 2013, this ratio was about 60% four-seam fastballs and 40% two-seam fastballs. Nova’s two-seamer combines excellent velocity (92-96 mph) with great run and sink. The groundball rate on his two-seamer was over 60% in 2013. Overall, Nova’s groundball rate was 10th among pitchers that threw at least 130 innings. Along with the huge drop in HR/FB ratio, this helped him cut his HR/9 rate from 1.48 to 0.56.
Much of Nova’s improvement in ERA from 2012 to 2013 is due to positive regression. His BABIP and HR/FB were almost impossibly high. However, adjustments he made also played a significant role. The increased emphasis on his curveball and two-seam fastball should continue to produce strong groundball rates.
Going forward, Yankees fans can expect a solid, but not spectacular starter. While Nova gets whiffs at a league average rate, he depends on hitters chasing his pitches. His Zone-Contact rate is very high. Without elite control and a devastating chase pitch like Adam Wainwright, it’s very difficult to be an ace with a Zone-Contact rate north of 90%.
Furthermore, while Nova had a low walk rate, only three pitchers threw a lower percentage of first-pitch strikes, suggesting that his walk rate may rise in 2013.
Still, even with some regression, Nova can be a solid middle of the rotation guy. After his 2012 season and the first couple of months of 2013, every Yankees fan would be pleased to see Nova turn out this way.
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