Take it away, Joel Sherman…
When I was at Yankee Stadium on Saturday, a member of the team told me something I found interesting: After Ivan Nova’s poor relief appearance on April 19 in Toronto, Freddy Garcia pulled the young righty aside. Usually pitchers pair up with the same partner every day to play catch and Garcia and Nova are partners. Garcia asked Nova what pitch he thought was most important to his repertoire. Nova replied his curveball. So Garcia told Nova that the youngster was not working on the pitch enough. So Garcia said this is what would be done moving forward: While the two played catch, Nova would flip 40-plus curveballs. Garcia’s point was that catch is not just about loosening an arm or keeping it fit. The idea is never to do anything without meaning. Garcia wanted Nova to get such a good feel for the curve that he could throw it in any count comfortably.
On Sunday against the Blue Jays – the team that crushed him in relief a few weeks earlier – Nova struck out five: The finishing pitches on each were curves and three of those were called third strikes. With runners on in the second, fourth, fifth and sixth, Nova recorded the final out of the inning with his curve.
Both the increased usage and effectiveness of Nova’s curveball was obvious in his last two starts. PitchFX says he threw just 37 curves (14.5% of his total pitches) in his first three starts (not counting that relief appearance), 21 for strikes (56.8%) and just one for a swing-and-miss (2.7%). His last two starts have featured 58 curveballs (30.5%), 36 for strikes (62.1) and five for swings-and-misses (8.6%). In terms of effectiveness, the pitch went from almost exactly average in the first three starts to more than two runs above average in the last two starts. It’s a big difference.
All the extra curveballs have come at the expense of the changeup, which he’s thrown just twice in his last two starts (one in each) compared to 43 (!!!) in his first three starts. Nova’s never missed bats with his fastball despite solid (but not great) velocity and probably won’t ever miss bats with it because he has almost no deception in his delivery, so it’s going to be tough for him to succeed long-term as a guy that throws 98% fastballs and curves. Phil Hughes had success with that approach in 2010 because he could actually reach back and throw a fastball by hitters (9.2% whiff rate on the fastball, 11.5% on the cutter last year). Nova has gotten a swing-and-miss on 3.8% of his fastballs this year and just 1.8% last September. They’re completely different animals.
That doesn’t mean anything for right now though. The curveball heavy approach is clearly working and there’s no reason for Nova to change it, but there’s a pretty good chance that the league will adjust at some point. It’ll then be up to Ivan to adjust back if he wants to remain a successful starter. It’s the baseball circle of life.