Can Ivan Nova Be a Viable Fourth Starter?

Reevaluating Johan Santana: part 1 of 2
Open Thread: Fernando Seguignol

My liking for Ivan Nova goes far beyond the rational. If this were 1988, I’d have his Donruss rookie card in a plastic sleeve, his customizable name-and-number T-shirt crammed inside my dresser, and his Sports Illustrated poster hanging on my wall, right beside a dog-eared mosaic of 80’s pseudo-stars like Xavier McDaniel, Yannick Noah, and Tim Witherspoon. (Like a bad hedge fund manager, I had a childhood propensity for balancing my irrational fondness for mediocrities such as Pearl Washington with obscurities like Jo Jo Townsell.)

For better or worse, most Yankees fans have a segment of their DNA strand dedicated to an appetite for shiny, pretty things that go really, really fast. It’s a big reason why the Yankee blogosphere exploded with jubilation when Joba Chamberlain burst on

"Ivan, I have your rookie card!" (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

the scene in 2007 with a 100 MPH heater and a 12.8 K/9, only to have a collective meltdown when he “lost” his fastball as a starter in ‘09. It’s also why Ian Kennedy, his 89 MPH two-seamer, and his smirky smarminess were derided and dismissed more than they should have been.

For me, Ivan Nova and his mid-90s fastball feeds this innate desire nicely. That he’s homegrown and under-hyped only adds to the appeal. Plus, with his 6’4” power pitcher’s frame, the guy looks like a workhorse – something the Yankees desperately need going forward. (Granted, when it comes to pitchers, body type is often overrated: In their primes, Mike Mussina and Pedro Martinez looked more like skinny jeans hipsters from a Belle and Sebastian concert than top-of-the-rotation big league stalwarts.)

As I anxiously await the availability of the first wave of Ivan Nova bobbleheads and replica home jerseys to stream across the Atlantic, the only thing I currently possess that signifies my disproportional faith in him as a successful big league starter is faith itself. Getting others to believe is a different story. Since he’s never been an elite prospect, actual first-party scouting reports on Nova are scarce; those that do exist, project his ceiling as a fourth or fifth starter. Moreover, despite an overall solid rookie stint in the Bronx last summer, most trusted statistical projections systems despise Nova and all he stands for. CAIRO, for example, predicts a 2011 ERA of 5.24, a FIP of 5.03 and what essentially amounts to a replacement-level WAR (0.3) – on top of a diminished ground ball percentage (46.7). Which means that Ivan Nova is slated to get an A+ in terrible.

Such ominous forecasting would normally tripwire my denial alarms and prompt a full-scale treatise on irrationally pervasive Yankee hate. But CAIRO also predicts only 83 innings from the big righty, which perhaps indicates their presumption of a mid-season rotation acquisition more so than a Nova collapse. With that said, a 0.3 WAR? Even if he’s bad, he almost certainly won’t be Jeff Suppan bad.

Still, the more rational side of me understands the Nova pessimism. Touting a litany of eye-popping minor league and small-sample big league stats would be tough going at this point: Without question, some of Nova’s peripherals reveal trends that could be reason for concern. But here I go anyway.

First, the bad.

Nova’s career minor league WHIP of 1.370, for example, is downright frightening. Farnsworth frightening. Except that the Kyle has “proven” that he can “pitch” to a 1.389 WHIP through 11 seasons at the big league level, whereas Nova was losing the plate against the likes of Gus Milner and Tuffy Gosewisch.

Not that walking everyone in the park as a rangy 21-year-old is the end of the world. Many tall, young power pitchers in-the-making struggle with both their control and command early on. And while some of Nova’s minor league peripherals don’t exactly scream Baseball America cover model, they’re actually pretty solid – especially if we account for a learning curve leading up to his 2010 season at Scranton. For example, while Nova still gave up too many hits at SWB in 2010 (8.4 H/9), his 0.6 HR/9 through 145 IP placed him seventh among pitchers with more than 100 IP. He also significantly improved upon his control there, pitching to a 1.262 WHIP.

Most of these trends carried over into Nova’s abbreviated 2010 stint in the Bronx. While his hits-per-innings increased only slightly, both his WHIP and K/9 suffered considerably. Obviously, a hit in performance can be expected when jumping from AAA to the majors. But could it also be that a significant portion of the drop-off was due to fatigue? Consider that, when totaling his minor and major league innings, Nova pitched 27 innings beyond his previous high in 2010. Acknowledging that many of his big league innings were thrown in the high-leverage heat of an AL East pennant race, and we have to allow for the possibility that fatigue was a very real factor in contributing to his late-season lag. In fact, in his last four major league starts of 2010, he totaled only 17.1 innings with 9 Ks and 13 earned runs. Contrast that with his previous four outings, in which the big righty totaled 21.2 innings with 16 Ks and 8 earned runs. Small samples, for sure – but something to consider.

So what does this mean for the 2011 rotation and Ivan Nova’s career as a starter going forward? For one thing, most signs indicate that he’s not headed for greatness. But as a fourth starter, he doesn’t need to be. In fact, earlier this week, Paul Swyden over at Fangraphs cogently illustrated how Ivan Nova could actually prove to be an upgrade over past Yankees fifth starter immortals like Sidney Ponson and Darrell Rasner. Not only do I agree with Swyden’s thesis, but when compared to fourth starters on some other contending AL clubs, Nova can more than hold his own. Consider the following number fours from the past five World Series champions:

Jonathan Sanchez’s unforeseen emergence notwithstanding, these are not seasons for the ages. As you can see, all Nova has to be in 2011 is slightly better than bad. So the question isn’t whether or not he can develop into Chien-Ming Wang, circa 2006, but if someone with Nova’s talent and skill set can hold his own as a fourth starter on a championship-caliber ballclub. If I had one, I’d bet my bobblehead on it.

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Reevaluating Johan Santana: part 1 of 2
Open Thread: Fernando Seguignol
  • Andy in Sunny Daytona

    Look at Nova’s minor league numbers:
    http://tinyurl.com/24ernnz

    Now this guys minor league numbers:
    http://tinyurl.com/33oqd8y

    Am I suggesting that Nova will have a career like him? Yes. Yes I am, Nova will have the exact same career.

    • Kevin in Princeton

      I like where this is going…

    • Preston

      There is always that possibility, but Roy Halladay went down to the minors and completely reinvented himself, adding pitches to his repertoire. Right now Nova has the stuff to be a middle to back end of the rotation guy. If he sharpened his curveball and maybe added another pitch (there’s a guy in the bullpen who could show him how to throw an Ok cutter) he could possibly be more.

    • FIPster Doofus

      No way. Nova will have a better career.

  • Jimmy McNulty

    I did not know that Joba was essentially replacement level in 2009.

  • http://twitter.com/steveh_mandaura Steve H

    As you noted, Nova was pretty “meh” in the minors before 2010. If something clicked and 2010 is his true skill level (obviously with room for improvement) than he can definitely be a solid starter for the Yankees down the road, and hopefully this year as well. If he reverts back to his pre-2010 form of striking out about 6 guys per 9, he will struggle in the majors. Hopefully working with Rothschild will be a big help for him to grow on his 2010 success. He definitely throws hard enough to succeed, so hopefully he’s just a few tweaks away from being a solid option for this team going forward.

    • Amol

      Kevin Goldstein wrote a few months back that Nova had added velocity in 2010, which would indicate that the increased K/9 wasn’t a fluke.

    • MikeD

      True, although he pitched quite well at AA in 2009, and then pitched great at AAA in 2010. He is improving as he climbs to higher leagues, which is not a bad trend. He was not great his first spin through the majors in late 2010, any more than he handled AAA all that well after his first spin through the league. Yet he improved in 2010, so let’s hope he improves in the majors in 2011 on his second spin.

      Yet this is the problem I have with him being a #4 as opposed to a #5.

      • jeremy

        reminds me of brett gardner in some way because the first time at a new level he struggled but the second time brett went to a level he put up good numbers. hopefully nova will do the same!

  • Monteroisdinero

    Then there is the also important “mental makeup” of a starting pitcher. Nova seems like a cool customer and has a sense of humor. He showed some fire when appropriate (Bautista in Toronto). I talked to him a few times at Scranton. He seemed well-liked by his teammates and is a quipster. I think he will be fine as a 4th or 5th starter. Hopefully he can figure a way to get through the lineup 3x.

    • http://twitter.com/steveh_mandaura Steve H

      I’d be thrilled if he can have the career of a a guy with a supposed terrible mental makeup in AJ Burnett.

      • Monteroisdinero

        I’m sure he thinks he can do better. He needs to stay away from that 54 foot curveball that AJ has mastered.

        • http://twitter.com/steveh_mandaura Steve H

          Regardless of what he thinks, the odds of Nova having as successful a career as AJ are very low. Nova, along with the rest of us, would be thrilled for AJ’s career.

    • Chops

      For curiosity, what is Nova’s BCS (Bulldog in a China Shop) value?
      Similarly, what’s his GRIT factor?

      • Sean C

        I saw him pitch at U.S. Cellular field when the Yanks were in town to play the Chisox, and I don’t recall seeing him grunting and/or farting. But that’s just an evaluation with my eyes. And I don’t think Fangraphs has a page for that, as unfortunate as that is.

  • Ryan

    Great post, Brock! I am not a big fan of your “whimsy” articles but i absolutely loved this! Keep it up!

    • Skip

      Agree! I did the “no read” thing last week but this was a good article. And I like the well placed humor. I look forward to reading more like this! Keep up the good work.

    • The209

      Great comment, Brock! Keep it up! I’m not sure if I love this comment, but my exclamation key is ready to fall off!

      Watch this…everything is better with exclamation points!

      Brock’s first 2 articles = meh!

      Ryan’s last comment: fucking meh!

    • http://twitter.com/TylerWilkinson T-Dubs

      Or you could say something nice without being a dick. Either way.

      • The209

        Really?

        Because when I read this space last weekend — and the column wasn’t quite up to snuff — there were only dickhead comments.

      • Poopy Pants

        But…aren’t you…doing that yourself??

  • Steve (different one)

    I am very excited to watch Ivan Nova – #5 starter this season.

    I am not excited at all to watch Ivan Nova – #4 starter this season.

    • Kevin in Princeton

      I agree with this. If we had go into the season with Nova as the #5 starter instead of the #4 starter I will feel a lot better.

  • dutchsailor

    I love the russian (Ivannova!

  • The209

    Shit. I was still wondering if AJ could be the #3 starter.

  • Ben

    Gosh. I remember Wang coming up and devastating everyone with his filthy sinkerball. Good days, good days.

    • mike c

      agreed… it’s a shame that it didn’t work out

  • mike c

    I like nova with the improved bullpen this year… if he can do 4-5 good innings a start, that should give us a chance to win most nights

  • MikeD

    I have no issue with Nova being the #5 going into the season, just as Hughes was the #5 going into the 2010. Using the fifth slot as a way to break in young arms makes perfect sense. Not all will make it. Some will bomb out, some will end up in the pen, but seems like a good way to assess the talent facing MLB competition. Most teams don’t get much production out of the #5, so using the #5 for promising rookies can lead to a breakout season. We know what we get with a Rasner or Ponson. No upside chance; not building for the future. Nova, and certainly eventually a Brackman or one of the other B’s, bring potential upside, and great interest from fans as we hope to develop the next Pettitte, or even the next Wang.

    I do have a concern going into a season where he (or other rookies) are already being expected to be the #4. He might make it, but depending on him to give innings, let along quality innings, is a stretch.

    Come back, Andy.

    • http://sec42 Scott

      i also like nova as a #4. easy guy to root for. nice post.

  • Dr. O

    Could you even get customized name & number t’s in 1988?

    • Brock Cohen

      I have a Goose Gossage one from the late-80s with holes in the armpits and the name peeling off the back. At the moment, it reads, “G se Goss g.”

      So, to answer your question, yes.

      • Dr. O

        Interesting. I just remember those popping up around the late 90’s. The first one I ever actually saw was a “Costanza 00″

  • NJYankeeFan

    I can see Nova in a Ramiro Mendoza type role as a top notch spot starter, long/middle reliever.

  • NJYankeeFan

    Nice article. Terrible Tim sure had a tremendous overhand right. Pearl Washington however reminded me of the point guard version of Eddy Curry once he got to the NBA.

    • Brock Cohen

      When Pearl Washington dreams about having a career like Eddie Curry’s God slaps him.

  • icebird753

    Sigh. No offense to the new writers, but for some reason I can always tell when its not a Mike, Ben or Joe article, probably b/c the writing is different. But great piece here

  • @TheDog_man

    I am not saying that he is going to be as good as the greatest pitcher who ever lived but Mariano Rivera was not a top prospect either. Also, there are things a scout sees that can’t show up on any metric.

  • Monteroisdinero

    The guy can throw 96/97 and can throw a changeup for strikes when behind in the count. This is a great foundation for success.

  • Billion$Bullpen

    “Can Ivan Nova Be a Viable Fourth Starter?”

    Yes he can.

  • Kevin Ocala, Fl

    Good God, already! A pitcher, early 20’s and he either “makes it” or “doesn’t” because of some computer projections?! Remember, Nova is only as old as a pitcher coming out of college. He hasn’t filled out yet, he has plenty of time to develop other pitches, and time to learn the “art” of pitching. Barring injury (always a big if) there’s no reason he can’t become perhaps a very good pitcher, or pitching in Japan in 3 years. Last year in the Majors he looked really good 2 turns through the line-up, at which point he either tired, or he didn’t, or couldn’t, give the hitters a different look. Stay tuned.

  • crapmaster general

    speaking of an irrational love for xavier mcdaniel, in 1988 or 89 I in fact mailed his Hoops trading card (in its plastic sleeve!) to the Sonics with a letter asking for it to be autographed. it was returned to me roughly a month later – signed by xavier. I couldn’t believe it then, and I kinda can’t now.

  • YanksFan77

    I can’t believe someone actually referenced Belle and Sebastian in an RAB article. Well done, well done.

  • BoogieDownEnigma

    BBRef lists Nova as 6’3″, 210 pounds. John Smoltz is listed as 6’4″, 210 pounds.

    Smoltz in AA, 1987: 6.0 K9, 5.6 BB9, 1.2 HR9

    Nova in AA, 2009: 5.8 K9, 3.9 BB9, 0.4 HR9

    Smoltz in AAA, 1988: 7.7 K9, 2.5 BB9, 0.3 HR9

    Nova in AAA, 2010: 7.1 K9, 3.0 BB9, 0.6 HR9

    Smoltz as a rookie, 1988: 5.2 K9, 4.6 BB9, 1.4 HR9

    Nova as a rookie, 2010: 5.6 K9, 3.6 BB9, 0.9 HR9

    Smoltz, 1989: 7.3 K9, 3.1 BB9, 0.9 HR9, first of 8 All Star games

    Not sayin’, but ya never know. Smoltzie turned out to be a pretty darn good Hall of Fame third or fourth starter

  • Wil Nieves #1 Fan

    HOWIE KENDRICK PITCHES TOO!?!?!??!

  • Evan3457

    Injuries are the big thing with any very young pitcher.

    If he doesn’t have major arm injuries, then his stuff is more than sufficient. He just needs innings to gain command of his stuff on the major league level, learning how to use it to get major league hitters out 2-3 times a game.

    As far as his role…#4 or #5 is fairly interchangeable. I think he can handle it. He just has to go 5-5+ innings a start, and let the strong pen fill in the rest. If it’s not pooped out from an early AJ exit.

  • Mark

    Across the Atlantic? Does this mean Mr Cohen is living in Europe. If so, I’m not alone, woohoo!!

  • Pete C.

    I watched Ivan Nova pitch in ’10, and frankly for a man with his youth and inexperience I thought he did an admirable job. I also believe Girrardi’s habit of pulling him before the opposing lineup got to see him for a third time around was a good idea. In large part due to what some have stated earlier that he needs at least another pitch and or a better curve ball.
    I don’t know much about stats, as been pointed out to me repeatedly on this site, but I do know a little about teaching 20 somethings a difficult skill, I’ve spent 20 years as a tool and die foreman and have trained a half dozen apprentices over that stretch, the one thing I’ve come to realize and it’s really the only thing I can count on when it comes to guys that age in that level of development: some guys start out fast and fade, some guys start out slow and get better, and some guys just aren’t cut out for the job.
    The point I’m making with that oversimplified statement is Ivan Nova either will or won’t be a successful pitcher in the Majors, and the team will find someone to replace him if they’re not satisfied.
    I guess my point is; projecting a prospects development to major league level by stats accrued in the minors, reminds me of a quote I once read attributed to Stevie Ray Vaughn, I paraphrase:”there’s a fine between playing a solo on stage and public masturbation”. Even mutual fund companies warn about basing future success or failure on past results.

    • fire levine

      I would take roy halladay over sergio mitre based on past results. Ye its extreme but I’m trying to make the point that past results is more or less the only indicator we have of future performance

  • http://www.man-front.com/2011/08/victoria-ghost.html Chastity

    My webpage; man-front.com (Chastity)