Over the past few years, the Yankees have not shown much patience when it comes to developing their young pitching arms. At various points since 2008, Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain and Ian Kennedy have been bounced around in various roles, moved from one level to the other with a short leash or flat-out traded away. If that, as we have seen, is how the Yanks treat their top prospects, imagine how the club, always in win-now mode and without the luxury of a large cushion in the American League East, might feel about its less heralded arms.
Ivan Nova, tonight’s starter, is one of those less heralded arms. Never ranked among the Yanks’ top prospects — Baseball America hasn’t included him in the top ten while our own Mike Axisa ranked him eighth — the Yanks like his fastball and poise, but his breaking pitches haven’t matured into Major League out-pitches yet. Furthermore, he has struggled getting through the lineup multiple times, and in fact, lately, he’s just flat-out struggled to get through the lineup period.
On the season, Nova is 1-2 with a 7.63 ERA. In 15.1 innings, he’s given up 19 hits and nine walks on nine strike outs, and while no one has left the yard against him yet, opponents are hitting a robust .306/.411/.452 against him. With a line drive rate of 15.1 percent, the walks along with some seeing-eye grounders have gotten him in trouble. His FIP is only 4.02 and his xFIP is 5.31. Essentially, he’s not pitching well, but because he’s keeping the ball in the park, he’s not pitching as badly as his numbers might indicate.
Yet, Nova could very well be pitching for his job tonight. The Yankees have Kevin Millwood waiting in the wings, and while the 36-year-old hasn’t been lighting up the gun in the minors, he has gotten 14 innings’ worth of outs in two starts. He also holds a May 1 opt-out, and after his AAA start this Thursday, the Yankees are more than likely going to activate him.
Tonight, thus, isn’t Nova’s last start. Because the Yanks don’t have any off-days and Millwood wouldn’t be able to take the mound until next Tuesday at the earliest, the 24-year-old will pitch this weekend as well. This evening’s outing though is an audition. Nova has to give the Yankees innings and get outs without pitching them into a big hole. He couldn’t have drawn an easier opponent.
As a team, the White Sox are hitting .241/.306/.370. They have the fourth fewest walks in the AL and love to swing at everything. They’ve managed to plate just one run in one of their last 28 innings, and against right-handers, they’re hitting an even-worse .235/.296/.373. This is the perfect team for a struggling pitcher to face, and if Nova can’t keep things close, he is not an ideal fifth starter right now for the Yankees.
Perhaps it’s not fair for the team and the fans to put so much pressure on Nova to perform. We try not to judge players based on how they do over the first few weeks of the season, and we know the Yanks are high enough on Nova to have entrusted him with a rotation spot. But we also know that Nova is under team control for half a decade longer while Kevin Millwood could leave in five days. We know that Nova has made it out of the 5th just once this year, and we know the Yanks need their innings and Ws. For a young starter in late April, Nova faces a key test tonight. How he does will determine what the Yanks do over the next few turns through the rotation.