It’s only Spring Training, but we were treated to a pitching gem last night. Ivan Nova, the youngest member of the fourth/fifth starter’s competition, threw six hitless innings against the Orioles, allowing only two baserunners (one hit-by-pitch, one error). Eleven of the 14 balls put in play off of him were grounders, and four other outs came on strike three. Nova threw just 59 pitches (41 strikes), so he had to head to the bullpen to throw another 15 after leaving the game just to reach his pitch limit.
After the game, Nova told Marc Carig that he’s working on a new pitch at the behest of pitching coordinator Billy Connors, a pitch he broke out last night. “My slider is like a new toy,” said the right-hander. “I have to start playing with it some time, not too much, but I feel comfortable with all my pitches.” Connors and Nova were originally trying to add a cutter, but the ball just kept moving too much. So they kept it, called it a slider, and here we are. Three of Nova’s four strikeouts came on the pitch, and as you’d expect, he’s going to keep using it in the future.
Nova’s scouting report has been the same basically his entire career. He’s a fastball-curveball-changeup guy, usually sitting 92-94 with the heat (though last year we saw some unexpected 97’s). Although the two offspeed pitches are solid offerings, neither is a legit swing-and-miss pitch right now, which is why his ceiling has always been limited to that of a back-end starter. Adding a put-away pitch in the form of that cutter/slider would be a major development for Nova, boosting his stock and future projection a great deal. Having a go-to pitch is a surprisingly rare luxury.
Although he says he’s going to focus on the changeup next time out, it’ll be interesting to see if the pitch takes a backseat to this new slider. It wouldn’t be ideal, but if Nova has to sacrifice one solid pitch for one above-average pitch, then so be it. You make that trade every day of the week. Joe did some quick research last night and found a few pitchers that rely on both a slider and curveball (at least 12% of the time each) but not a changeup (less than 10%), and came up with a nice mix: Brett Myers, Gavin Floyd, Tommy Hanson, and both Cardinals’ aces, Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter. That doesn’t tell us anything about Nova of course, but it gives us some examples of pitchers that survive (and thrive) with two breaking balls and a nascent changeup.
“Working on a new pitch” is the pitcher’s equivalent of “the best shape of his life,” so take this report of Nova’s slider with a grain of salt. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth paying attention to though, so definitely keep an eye on if/when/how he uses the pitch during what should be his final two Spring Training outings.