What we learned about Ivan Nova in two starts


(AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

As baseball fanatics we’re an excitable bunch, but nothing quite piques that excitement like a rookie who helps the team right away. That can be a hyped prospect like Joba Chamberlain in 2007, but it doesn’t have to be. Ivan Nova has demonstrated that in the past few weeks. He fit into no one’s top 10 Yanks prospects, but he has come up and helped the Yankees when they needed it most. He’ll take at least one more turn in the rotation, giving the Yanks some flexibility while Andy Pettitte remains on the shelf.

It can be tough to objectively judge a young pitcher through just two starts. Sometimes pitchers get hot at the right time and deceive us for a while. Other times they succeed because the opposing team is unprepared. As the scouting report on Nova makes its rounds we might see teams take a different approach. But for now we’ve seen great success. He only needs to keep doing these things for a couple more turns through the rotation.

Either the guns are hot or he’s gassing hitters

I firmly believe that PitchFX readings in both Toronto and Chicago were a bit hot for the past week. Phil Hughes averaged a mile per hour faster than normal on Wednesday night, and on the same night Javy Vazquez sat around 90 for the first time in a long time. A.J. Burnett averaged about 94.5 mph on Friday night, which is way above his season average. Joba Chamberlain hit 100 yesterday. This all sounds a bit suspect, so I’m more apt to believe that the gun runs hot. It’s more plausible than all of these guys throwing way harder than they have for most of the season.

The scouting report on Ivan Nova has him sitting 92-94, but in his two starts he has averaged 94 per PitchFX, touching 97 at times. I’m pretty sure that this isn’t his actual reading. But even if the actual speed is off, his fastball does have a lot of life on it. It’s not the vertical break you see from Hughes and David Robertson, but it still gets in there quickly and has decent movement. He also throws it a ton, 63 out of 88 pitches yesterday and 47 of 73 on Monday, and throws it for strikes.

He’s not exactly a three-pitch pitcher

Nova boasts just two non-fastball pitches, a curveball and a changeup. As Mike said in the scouting report, his change seems to be his best secondary offering, while the curveball “remains inconsistent.” Yet he’s gone to the curveball readily in the majors, to the neglect of the changeup. That got him into some trouble on Monday, but it worked out well yesterday.

The only real mistake Nova made against the Jays was the hanging curveball to Jose Bautista. That was one of 18 curveballs thrown, and while it was the worst the others weren’t a ton better. It was basically the only pitch that the Jays beat him with. He threw just six for strikes, and generated no swings and misses. Meanwhile he threw just eight curveballs, five for strikes and three swinging. After a performance like that it might seem like he’d go with the changeup more often.

Instead, he did the exact opposite. Just one of his 88 pitches yesterday was a changeup thrown for a strike, while 24 were curveballs. That pitch was much better this time around, as he threw 13 for strikes and generated three swings and misses. Good on Nova for recognizing that it was working. I still wonder, though, what happened to the changeup that has served as his best secondary pitch.

He generates grounders without keeping the ball down

When we see a pitcher who keeps the ball on the ground, we typically think he throws low in the zone. Tim Hudson, Brandon Webb, and other sinkerballers make their livings in the bottom third, and if they’re truly elite the bottom quarter of the zone. In the minors Nova had a healthy groundball rate above 50 percent, and through his first two starts he’s stayed on a similar pace. Of the 43 balls put in play against him 22 have been on the ground. Yet he doesn’t really keep the ball low, as you can see in his strike zone plot from yesterday.

There was a bit more activity low in the zone on Monday, but not to the point where I’d say he’s living down there. Not even close, really. Which is fine. Groundballs can come any way a batter hits them. It’s just odd to see so many grounders generated from pitches high in the zone.

He throws strikes

In his two starts Nova has thrown 161 pitches, 102 of which have been strikes, or 63 percent. That’s what you want to see out of a young pitcher. He might not always be able to generate so many swinging strikes — about 9 percent — but if he keeps putting it in the zone, and if opponents keep hitting it on the ground, he might be able to sustain that success. Even when he’s not throwing strikes he avoids the walk, having issued just two free passes total in his two starts.

Signals of future success

No, Nova will not sustain the 1.93 ERA he has posted to this point. But there are indicators that he could perhaps continue pitching this well. Beyond the strikes throwing, the walk avoidance, and the ground balls, Nova also has excellent strikeout and home run numbers.

FIP gets a reputation for being a predictive stat, but I’ve never interpreted it that way. It tells us what happened, but only what happened without any regard to fielding. Nova’s 2.89 FIP isn’t based off what his ERA should be, per se, but instead measures his performance in terms of strikeouts, walks, and home runs — which are, again, things that actually happened. It just assumes zero responsibility for defense. While that’s clearly not true, it’s also clearly not true that the pitcher has 100 percent control over his defense, which is what ERA describes.

Nova’s ability to limit fly balls also bodes well for his continuing success. While we have seen plenty of young pitchers come up and get lucky on fly balls, only to experience regression when a few of them start leaving the ballpark, we haven’t seen this from Nova. He has allowed just one home run, which represents 7.7 percent of his fly balls allowed. That makes for a 3.23 xFIP, which is more of a predictive measure than FIP, because it substitutes home runs for theoretical home runs. Nova also has a 3.18 tERA, which is a component ERA based on batted ball type. Even in the complex SIERA formula he sits at 3.19.

Of course, his ability to keep inducing grounders, striking out hitters, and avoiding walks might change as the scouting report gets around. But by all current indications Nova has not only been very good, but could continue to be this good for a while. It’s a pleasant surprise for sure.

Categories : Pitching


  1. B-Rando says:

    I’m liking what I see from SuperNova thus far.

  2. CountryClub says:

    I was impressed with his change vs Toronto and thought we’d see it more yesterday. This article states that he only threw one and i don’t remember seeing him throw more than that. But, Girardi and Cervelli both said that he had all 3 pitches working yesterday. So he must have thrown more changeups than PitchFX is giving him credit for.

  3. He throws strikes

    I just wanted to repeat it again. It sounds so good to hear.

  4. “It’s not the vertical break you see from Hughes and David Robertson, but it still gets in there quickly and has decent movement.”

    I think that lack of “rise” is helping him, actually. Even though it’s up in the zone, hitters seem to be getting on top of it and hitting it on the ground.

    Also, even though PITCHf/x didn’t pick up on it, I’m fairly certain that there’s a slider mixed in with the curveball. They’re pretty similar, but the slider has less movement (less cut, less drop) and slightly more velocity.

  5. T-Dubs says:

    Reminds me a little of Wang. Underhyped successful minor leaguer with a big league sinker who throws harder than you’d expect and makes his living by keeping the ball down and not walking people.

    I’ve been very very impressed.

  6. Ross in Jersey says:

    Chicago and Toronto are ranked 8th and 11th respectively in runs scored, so he deserves some extra credit to holding down two of the better offenses in the league. It’s not like he made mistakes that a better hitting club would have capitalized on, which is sometimes the case with teams like Seattle/Oakland/etc.

    The only thing that worries me is that in both games, he got a bunch of ground balls early, then more in the air the 2nd time around in the batting order. That tells me he’s either elevating his pitches or the hitters are making better contact. Joe’s quick hook in both games prevented us from finding out how he’d fare once he approaches 100 pitches. Seeing how most younger pitchers struggle the 2nd/3rd time through the order, it’ll be interesting to see how Nova does when he’s allowed to go deeper into the game.

    • bexarama says:

      I honestly feel like he made a few mistakes in Toronto that they didn’t take advantage of. But agreed with everything else here and even though it’s a SSS and all that I think he’s been impressive overall.

      • Ross in Jersey says:

        I remember one hanging breaking ball that froze Bautista for a called strike 3, but other than that (and the other one that Bautista crushed) most of his mistakes were out of the zone, which is a good thing. We’ll see if that holds up.

      • B-Rando says:

        Almost all pitchers make those mistakes every game they pitch. It’s all about minimizing the damage they create if/when they do.

        Agreed with being impressed by him overall thus far. I’d like to see him pitch at home, so we can gauge that gun reading to something we’re more familiar with.

  7. Steve H says:

    Are you trying to tell me that Nova’s ERA shouldn’t be 1.93???


  8. Steve H says:

    Definitely strange that with 4 leftie’s in the lineup yesterday the change was essentially non-existent. Maybe they are trying to save the change either for the next time through the league or if he starts getting in trouble.

    Maybe next year he can win the 5th spot in the rotation solely based on a changeup that he never uses?

    • Scout says:

      To win a starting job with the Yankees, you really only have to show the change during spring training. Once the regular season begins, you go back to the pitches you prefer, and talk about how you’re working on the change during your bull-pen sessions.

  9. kosmo says:

    I think Girardi is aware that Nova is at 160 innings combined for the season so NY probably will not let Nova exceed 180 innings which means 3 or 4 more starts.

  10. Klemy says:

    I hope he keeps this going, because it’s been fun to watch a young pitcher challenging and throwing strikes. The team needs this right now with their concerns with the rotation, so everything he’s giving them is great right now.

  11. Fair Weather Freddy says:

    Definitely a candidate for the 5th spot in the rotation next season. If Yanks get Lee and Andy retires,rotation would be CC, Lee, Burnett, Hughes and Nova. Not bad.

  12. CS Yankee says:

    I think it was great that The Great Gazoo was behind the dish yesterday for SuperNova’s start.

    Cerv made him comfortable, called what he could throw & had a career day to help his cause.

  13. larryf says:

    Interesting that his curve at 82/83mph is slower than his changeup at 87 from what I’ve seen. Nova is tall with long limbs and a very smooth delivery. His fastball seems to get on hitters quickly due in part to his mechanics. He seems to have a calm demeanor out there which is nice. All good so far.

  14. Gonzo says:

    Let’s talk turkey, what can he net in a trade!

    • I’m only trading Ivan Nova for someone else named “Ivan”.

      So your options are either Ivan Rodriguez or Carlos Beltran, if you can get him to go by his middle name.

      I can possibly be talked into Ivan Calderon, but he’ll need to pass a physical first since he’s been retired for 17 years.

    • Jeff Levy says:

      What would the Yankees need to trade for? Everyone will take good young pitching off your hands.

      Its not like the Yankees need much the infield is locked up. Swisher and Gardner have both exceeded expectations. Granderson has been making progress.

      The most valuable commodity in baseball has always been pitching. It’s good to keep Nova. We saw the bullpen struggle earlier this year, Pettitte go down and Burnett and Vazquez pitch really poorly. It’s good to have insurance. You can’t win without good pitching.

    • SullyLV says:

      For years the Yankees and the fans have being waiting for the day that pitches can come from the minor leagues and help the Yankees win.Now you want to trade one after 2 games after going 2-0.How stupid is that?

  15. Jeff Levy says:

    It’s always fun to watch a rookie pitcher come up and succeed. I hope Nova continues to pitch well.

    He has had his trouble spots. Like the bases loaded with no outs in his first start. Gardner’s catch and throw home for the double play really saved him from a big inning. Like any young pitcher he still has aspects of his game to work on like his secondary pitches.

    Even if Pettitte comes back next year (which I hope he does), Nova could probably figure into the Yankees plans as a reliever like Phil Hughes did. If Nova does enter the rotation in 2011, it doesn’t seem like he’ll have an innings limit.

  16. Ellis says:

    FWIW, Baseball Digest had Nova at #10 in the Yankees system – so he’s not totally unheralded.

  17. Mike HC says:

    I’m cautiously optimistic with Nova. He has pitched well so far, but both starts have been quite short and he has got by on basically his fastball alone. He does throw hard and has been throwing strikes, so I don’t think he will fall completely off the map. I’m just not getting my hopes up that high with him.

  18. Andrew says:

    I think his change up will be very important in his next start since it will be the 2nd time Toronto’s hitters get to face him. There is more video available on him now and so mixing in a pitch he hasn’t used that much in his 2 starts could be the difference between keeping their lineup in check and potentially running into his first roadblock in the majors.

  19. UncleArgyle says:

    Nova reminds me a lot of Edwin Jackson.

  20. LemdaGem says:

    In only his second start, he consistently induced pop ups and ground balls with ChiSox runners on the bases. This kind of pitching will not only keep the defense alert and sharp behind him, but set up hitters for
    crucial at bats with some doubt in their heads in he continues to pound the strike zone on the first three pitches of every at bat.
    MPH over 92 is not a necessity in the big leagues if a pitcher has an arsenal of effective pitches that keep hitters off balance and guessing.
    Think of Kyle Farnsworthless as a classic example of a late ’90′s MPH
    fireballer with NO late movement on any of his pitches.
    Do not fall into the triple digit mentality that believes high velocity equals success. When you have a nine to three movement on your breaking stuff, when those sliders, cutters and curves drop off the table over the plate within the black from the late 80′s to early 90′s, and throw a “heavy” fastball, you will be a contributor instead
    of guys who’s heads are still in the “K Zone” mentality.
    a pitcher will be successful

  21. Yank the Frank says:

    I like his demeanor on the mound. He does not seem to rattle easy. A good sign.

  22. nsalem says:

    Hope he does not have Edwin’s control issues.

  23. mustang says:

    Could it be that an un-hyped young pitcher with little to average minor league success is actually more then his scouting reports reads?
    Oh! My Baseball America the Gods must be crazy.

  24. Cy Pettitte says:

    He should be a great back end of the rotation guy for us, throws strikes, keeps the ball down/in the park, great confidence. From the SSS so far I like him a lot

  25. vinny-b says:

    Nova reminds me of Joaquín Andújar


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