Ivan Nova and why 7 starters for 5 spots isn’t too much

ST Game Thread: The Finale
Update: MRI negative on Logan's back
(Steve Ruark/Getty Images)

Are you worried about Ivan Nova‘s rough spring? In one way, it’s easy to write off his poor performance. We can turn to some pretty gruesome spring trainings that meant absolutely nothing. After all, in the spring of 2009 Zack Greinke had an ERA of nearly 10; he won the AL Cy Young Award that season. Cliff Lee had a 5.68 ERA in the spring of 2008, and he had been demoted for poor performance in 2007, yet he produced a magnificent Cy Young season. In that way, it’s not too concerning to see Nova’s 8.06 ERA this spring.

Yet there’s something peculiar about the way Nova has performed this spring. Read accounts of his games, and you’ll see one term repeated frequently: not sharp. It wasn’t exactly a control thing; he walked only three batters in 22.1 innings. But he just wasn’t locating his pitches as he did last season. He wasn’t getting ground balls, which are key to his game. And he was leaving plenty of mistakes over the plate, as his team-leading five home runs suggests. Does that do anything to raise the level of concern?

It’s easy to forget how Nova ended last season. After surrendering a pair of solo homers in the first inning of ALDS Game 5, Nova mysteriously did not come out for the second. It was later revealed that he suffered an injury to the flexor tendon in his forearm, which is never something you want to hear. But he had the whole winter to rest and rehab, and it wasn’t long before the Yankees declared him healthy and ready to go. All seemed well. That is, until he got knocked around this spring.

This isn’t to throw up alarms and declare Nova injured. For all we know he could do the same thing that Greinke did in 2009, that Lee did in 2008, and completely shed a rough spring. But there has to be some worry that the injury continues to affect him. Maybe it’s not at risk for further damage, but maybe it throws him off enough that he’s not effective. That could hamper the Yankees to start the season. It’s also exactly why they assembled so much depth.

When Michael Pineda went down it was a big deal, but only because he represents such a big part of their future. Thankfully, the Yankees were prepared for such an occurrence. While having six starters for five spots was deemed a competition, it was as much insurance as anything. Pitchers get hurt, so having six for five spots is almost a necessity for a contending team. The Yankees suffered an injury, and were able to cover it up with their depth. If something is wrong with Nova and he’s not able to pitch effectively, they’ll again have to dip into their depth.

Thankfully, the Yankees do have some options that they can use in Nova’s place should worse come to worst. David Phelps has already made the big league club in the bullpen, and if Nova falters from the start they could slide him into the rotation. They also have Adam Warren and D.J. Mitchell in AAA, if they’d rather use someone who is already stretched out. Chances are none of those guys will step in and immediately replicate Nova’s production. But they certainly represent better options than we’ve seen in the past. That is to say, there’s no Sidney Ponson on the horizon if the pitching staff suffers another injury or bout of ineffectiveness.

Nova’s poor spring performance might be nothing. It might have been him pressing himself a bit too much. It might been him making certain necessary adjustments. It might have been one of those spring flukes we see nearly every year. But there is a possibility that something is not right with Nova, and that it will hurt his effectiveness from the get-go. If that is the case — and, again, it’s just a what-if scenario — the Yankees do have the depth to cover him. It might not be ideal, but it’s there. That’s why there’s never a problem in having seven guys for five spots. Something always comes up to mess up the best-case scenario.

ST Game Thread: The Finale
Update: MRI negative on Logan's back
  • Across the pond

    I don’t know if I’m on my own here but I hate these “competitions” they’ve had the last 2 springs (I can’t remember if they done it before that).

    Everyone knows the Yanks know who they want to be the starters so why don’t they just tell them they’ve got their backing and give them that confidence boost.

    Creating these stupid competitions only adds pressure from the media and is probably counter productive although I guess there’s no way to ever know that.

    • Dick Gozinya

      They’re professional athletes. Deal with the pressure. If you can’t deal with a faux-competition in the spring, how are you expected to pitch well in October.

      • Typical MIT Nerd

        Exactly, this is nonsense about pitchers being unable to handle a competition/demotion. If their ego and performance is that fragile, they will never succeed in the Bronx.

        I do hope that Hughes has just as short of a leash as Nova. Nothing should be a given when you’re trying to win ballgames. While Hughes has looked good, he’s been facing the second tier lineups. His Spring line is almost identical to Phelps.

      • Across the pond

        I get that, they have to be able to handle the pressure but I just don’t get the point in creating this pressure when they already have the ones they want in mind.

        If they really dont have an idea then fine but from all we heard this year and last, they’ve made their minds up bar injuries.

        • Havok9120

          Of course you’re going to have a frontrunner in any competition. But telling Garcia, Phelps & Co “you have nothing to play for this Spring. Your performance doesn’t really matter” isn’t usually the way to get the best out of people. It also would’ve been untrue, as Phelps won himself an opportunity on the club by differentiating himself during ST.

          I would’ve liked to see what would have been done had Pineda/Nova both gotten shelled without any injuries being involved.

          • Across the pond

            But the argument for competition being that they’re pros plays in this situation too. They’re pros so should be able to deal with not being in the starting 5 and perform in case a spot opens up.

            If I’m not mistaken Phelps got a spot due to injuries so he won it by performing even though he didn’t have a change originally.

            I just can’t see any obvious benefit by putting pressure on the guys you already know you WANT to start. It’d be different if you didn’t know who was the better option.

            After trading for Pineda, was it ever really realistic that he wouldn’t be starting? Barring injury he was starting so why, at every opportunity, did they feel the need to tell him (via the media) that he might not get a job.

    • Ted Nelson

      Who they want to win the competition and who does win will not always be the same thing.

      • JobaWockeeZ

        Only if who they deem the winner gets injured.

        • Havok9120

          Based on the one competition they had that we know was effectively rigged? Heck, even then it was more them knowing that Mitre was not what his numbers said he was and preferring Hughes. I honestly don’t remember the ST numbers of Aceves, and I don’t count Gaudin as part of that particular competition anymore than I did Mitre.

          • JobaWockeeZ

            In the Joba, Hughes, Guadin and Mitre battle it was clear they wanted Hughes to start all along. The beat writer’s have hinted it all spring despite RAB pleading and arguing for Joba.

            Then there’s the Colon, Garcia, whoever battle. Despite Colon showing nastier stuff and a nearly flawless performance Garcia got the nod. It wasn’t until Hughes went to the DL when Colon started. If it wasn’t for that then the Colon experience would have been delayed at the least.

            • Across the pond

              Exactly, they have their preference and barring a disaster they seem to go with that so why not just say it from the start.

              If the argument is that they should be able to handle the pressure of a competition, the same argument can be made that the losers should be able to handle the idea of not being in the rotation and still perform to their best. They shouldn’t need to be in a “competition” to perform.

            • Havok9120

              You’re absolutely right. I totally forgot about last year Colon/Garcia. Hmmm.

  • Dick

    It is always a problem having 5 guys for 7 spots. Not as much of a problem having 7 guys for 5 spots.

  • Ted Nelson

    I don’t necessarily agree with most of their arguments, but I think the point made was not 7 guys for 5 spots so much as 10-12 guys for 5 spots.

  • Typical MIT Nerd

    The team should be much more willing to use AAA to get pitchers going when they are not sharp. Hughes and Joba were never sent back down, to their detriment. They did it last year with Nova, when he was already getting better, and they should again if he’s worse.

    Nova was always seen as a back of the rotation arm. If he’s blows his first few starts, they should simply send him back down. Phelps and Warren are just as likely to offer similar production if given a chance.

    I’m not sure why we should assume that Nova’s 2011 is the standard going forward. His xFIP was 4.16. That’s a bit better than league average, but it could also represent his high water mark. It’s up to him to repeat it.

    • Havok9120

      And its up to the Yankees to give him more than 2 weeks to do it. There’s a middle ground between your campaign for quickly pulling the trigger on shuffling people up and down from AAA and NEVER sending guys down a la Joba and Hughes. Your extreme would probably be just as detrimental as theirs was, especially with a guy like Hughes (who you mentioned above as also needing a short leash).

      • Alkaline

        Agreed, extremes on one side or another usually aren’t good. I just hope these guys make it very difficult for the brass to decide who should be in the rotation come June 1.

  • Fin

    I think there is definitely cause for a little concern for Nova with what we have seen so far. Just like there is cause of optimism for Hughes with what we saw out of him in ST. However, barring Nova being Hughes bad from last year, it seems like Petite and hopefully Pineda would be ready by the time they saw enough out of him to warrant some sort of move.
    It seems at the very least you have to make him the 5th starter so you can limit the liability if he continues pitching bad in April.

    • Havok9120

      This. I’d like to see him get a 4-6 weeks, maybe a little longer, and go from there. If he’s getting absolutely shelled, something can be done before then. I hope it’ll depend on Pineda/Andy’s prognosis.

  • Johnny

    I know, but I don’t like Nova. I’ll admit it. Pineda rolls up, doesn’t do that badly, and gets hell and a half in spades. Nova does orders of magnitude worse, hears nothing about it, and shrugs his shoulders and says “I WAS LAZY GUYS.” Yeah, no kidding. Who is this upstart kid?

    • Mike Myers

      he doesnt get crapped on because he has already shown what he can to in the east.

      When did he say he was lazy?

    • Havok9120

      Well, that isn’t really what he said for one thing. For another, he’s matter of fact and honest about what he thinks he’s capable of (and his ambitions). I prefer that to the false modesty of guys who won’t admit that they think that they are better at what they do than the field. If you DON’T actually think you’re better at what you’re doing than the people you’re competing with, you’re probably in the wrong line of work.


    • fin

      You know that isnt Nova’s fault. He just happend to not be the new shiny toy. THere is very little not to like about Nova. He took and undeserved demotion to the minors last year and not only perservered but came back stronger. He has worked very hard to get his shot, having never been a top/hyped prospect, and made the most out of it.

    • Alkaline

      Big difference between saying I was lazy and I felt lazy. Obviously, he meant it as feeling lethargic that day, which translates to the horrible control he had. He couldn’t hit his spots.

      I certainly hope he gets his groove on. I feel like he’ll only have till around May or so, and if he’s not producing, he’ll be sent down. This doesn’t seem to be the confident Nova we saw at the end of the summer last year.

      But, please don’t go around saying untrue statements. You can’t infer he was just being arrogant from a statement like that.

  • qwerty

    I wouldn’t worry about Nova. Everyone was concerned about Pineda’s velocity early in the spring and that turned out to be nothing.

  • bill

    Anyone know what his velocity has been at this spring? I know it’s not the only thing that matters but just something I have been wondering

    • Havok9120

      Totally normal as far as I know. I actually have no idea what’s normal for him.