Ivan Nova and the high fastball

5/8-5/10 Series Preview: Tampa Bay Rays
Pettitte will start for Yankees on Sunday
(Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

It’s been kind of an odd start to the season for Ivan Nova. He’s striking out way more batters (8.22 K/9 and 19.6 K%) than last year (5.33 K/9 and 13.9 K%) and has walked fewer as well (2.64 BB/9 and 6.3 BB% vs. 3.10 BB/9 and 8.1 BB%), but his ground ball rate is down (44.2% vs. 52.7%) and he’s been getting hit hard. I mean really hard. Opponents have hit .341/.392/.636 against Nova in 143 plate appearances so far this year, and that’s just awful.

Thankfully, there are two pieces of good news. First, his stuff hasn’t changed from last season. His slider continues to be his primary secondary pitch and if anything, his fastball velocity actually jumped about half-a-mile an hour this year. Secondly, there is some statistical funny business going on. It’s very unlikely that Nova will fall victim to a .393 BABIP all season, though I suppose it’s possible if he doesn’t boost his ground ball rate and Raul Ibanez/Eduardo Nunez roam an outfield corner all season. His 16.7% HR/FB is quite astronomical and Hit Tracker says three of the six homers he’s allowed are “Just Enoughs,” meaning they were essentially wall-scrapers. Hopefully that evens out over time.

Unfortunately, there’s also some bad news. Nova’s fastball has been getting hammered despite the slight increase in velocity, resulting in a pitch that has been 9.2 runs below average so far this year. It hasn’t just been the least effective fastball in the league this year, it’s been the least effective pitch in all of baseball. That’s pretty bad. Unsurprisingly, location is a big reason why. Nova’s left the pitch up in the strike zone quite a bit in the early going, especially to left-handed batters…

(click to embeggin)

That’s a lot of fastballs basically right in the middle of the zone and above. There’s nothing wrong with pitching up in the zone, it can be brutally effective when done properly, but the rate at which Nova is going is probably a) a little extreme, and b) not entirely planned. The big knock on him throughout the minors was that he lacked deception in his delivery, which is why he never racked up as many strikeouts as his stuff suggested he should. If he’s not hiding the ball well and leaving fastball up in the zone too much, well that’s how you end up with a .341/.392/.636 batting line against through five starts.

The Rays have been one of the very best fastball-hitting teams in the majors so far this season, so tonight would be a great time for Nova to get his heater under control and down in the zone. Given the general uncertainty in the rotation behind CC Sabathia, it would be nice to have Ivan become that workhorse starter we all expected him to be after his great second half last year.

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5/8-5/10 Series Preview: Tampa Bay Rays
Pettitte will start for Yankees on Sunday
  • Gonzo

    Is he improving location start over start? Great stuff, by the way, Mike.

  • Peter R

    On Gameday pitchfx it looked like Hughes was grooving 94.5 mph fastballs up in the zone and just overpowering the Royals. Did it look like that on TV too? Was it just a product of the big lead? That not gonna work against a good offense.

    • jsbrendog

      i don’t think you’re giving the royals enough credit offensively

      granted a 102 wrc+ as a team isn’t epic but it is good enough for 9th in baseball

      http://www.fangraphs.com/leade.....;sort=16,d

      and they have the 10th highest wOBA

      http://www.fangraphs.com/leade.....;sort=15,d

      they are in the bottom of the league in runs scored though

      • Havok9120

        Yeah, people are letting the record and recent history speak for the Royals, and they aren’t that bad. They aren’t elite, great, or even quite good, but they aren’t terrible either. Their offense has been pretty good, its their pitching that has been mailing it in.

        • Robinson Tilapia

          There’s a lack of faith in teams like the Orioles and Royals that’s just built in after seeing them in constant rebuilding mode and failing. You never believe this is the time and these are the guys, no matter how many doubles Billy Butler hits.

          • Peter R

            Alright I get it! I unintentionally understated the Royals offense. I said wouldn’t work against a good offense and I thought at 102 wrc+ and middle of the pack numbers would qualify them as average at best…my mistake.

            My main comments was whether Hughes continued tendency to not throw down in the zone or to the sides…but to try and challenge hitters high in the zone is going to be a big issue or if he can get away with it.

            • JobaWockeeZ

              102 is essentially average.

            • Robinson Tilapia

              More commenting on Havok’s comment than your overall point, FWIW.

            • The Guns of Navarone

              Hughes’ fastball is much different than Nova’s. Hughes’ fastball has more deception in the way he shortarms his delivery. I also think it has more movement up in the zone. As Mike mentioned, Nova doesn’t have much deception in his delivery and hitters pick up the ball early in his throwing motion.

      • mac

        I agree with Peter R. The lineup Hughes faced had three credible hitters – Moustakis, Butler and Gordon.

  • .zip file

    Great analysis, Mike. I’m hoping he’ll get better as the season progresses, like he did last year.

    • .zip file

      Also, I wonder if the increase in strikeouts has lead to his decrease in ground balls?

      • Havok9120

        I’ve been told and have read that a higher K-rate leads to fewer ground balls due to the way you’re pitching to get those Ks.

        • .zip file

          That’s kind of what I thought, too, elevate the fastball, then secondary pitches low and out of the zone. And if he’s trying to elevate the fastball, I would think he’s probably throwing more 4 seamers, rather than the sinking fastballs he threw previously.

  • Bonnie Parker

    Whatever is the problem he needs to get back on track tonight. This is a BIG series and we’re counting on Nova and CC to win their starts. Phelps is a rookie so we’re not sure yet what he can do. All division series are big this year due to the additional wildcard. We have our ace on the mound in one of the games, the series is at home, and they are without their best player. We need to win this series against a division rival.

    • gc

      …or else we’re DOOOOOOOOOOMED!!!!!!

      lol

    • jjyank

      I’m curious, do you just have this copied and pasted for continued usage?

  • Robinson Tilapia

    Yet somehow our recollection is that he’s pitching better than a guy with that kind of opposing BA and the least effective pitch in the *gulp* league. How that’s happening, I have no clue.

    • Havok9120

      Results vs peripherals. It happens all the time, and in both directions. He’s been getting hammered and working out of jams the entire game. Its like watching Mussina pitch late in his career, just with better stuff.

      Unfortunately (in this case), peripherals usually win out.

      • Robinson Tilapia

        This is as striking a difference between the two (and perception versus reality) as I think I’ve ever seen.

        • Havok9120

          Yeah, me too. But the only reason such a difference has held up so far is because “so far” is, what, three decent-good looking but not starts? Maybe 4? Depends on what you’d classify as “good results,” but either way, we’re only a month in. This kind of perception (and those kinds of results) won’t hold up with peripherals like that over the course of a season unless he’s suddenly become Matt Cain.

          Then there’s the whole “screwed by BABIP” thing, which I usually dismiss in the case of pitchers but a .400 BABIP seems pretty extreme, even if the way he’s pitching is causing 2/3s or 3/4s of it.

        • Ted Nelson

          I think that the perception comes a lot from fans who take Ws to be a legitimate individual stat. Nova’s had two solid starts, but he’s also had three starts with very bad results. http://espn.go.com/mlb/player/...../ivan-nova

          Or maybe the perception was formed after three starts, when he had two good and one bad. The last two starts have been very bad results wise… like ERA up around 9.

          • Ted Nelson

            That plus getting 7.5 R/G of support the first 4 games helps, too.

          • .zip file

            And to expand on your point those two starts with bad results pushed his era up from 3.79 to 5.58. And 3 of those ER’s came in top of the 7th in his last start against the O’s (the one where Joe should never have sent him out). This early in the year, it’s all SSS and one bad start, heck, even one bad inning, can skew the whole thing.

          • Robinson Tilapia

            Maybe, but I’ll admit that it’s my perception and I don’t fit that description.

            Going six or more innings adds to it for me, plus those moments where he’s been ground balled to death get written off as unlucky bounces. Still, numbers are numbers.

    • Slugger27

      i dont know, i guess im in the minority, but ive been consciously disappointed in nova this year. i remember him looking good against the orioles, but it seems like every start after his 1st one has been shitty. im too lazy to look up the game logs though.

      • Havok9120

        I’d say 2 good, one mediocre, and 2 bad, though one of those two bad I didn’t hold against him too much after watching the game. I don’t remember why now though.

        The thing is….none of those should have been good if one looks at the stats behind them. Especially that first one agianst Baltimore. 10H and 6XBH, including a home run in 7 innings. I mean…yikes.

        • .zip file

          Really odd peripherals so far. Hopefully, it’ll even out and it’s just something we can chalk up to SSS.

      • .zip file

        Good 1st start against Bal, mediocre at best against the Angels, good against Boston, poor against Detroit, poor against Baltimore. But to be fair, the second start against Baltimore was 2 runs through 6 innings, and he labored in those innings. He really got tagged in the 7th by the O’s.

  • Manny’s BanWagon

    It’s crazy that a 93 MPH fastball is the worst pitch in all of baseball.

    Either he’s unlucky, his location is shit or his fastball is straight as an arrow or most likely a combination of the above.

    Once Roger Clemens gets acquitted, the Yankees should hire him to teach all their pitchers Mr. Splitty.

    • Slugger27

      his fastball definitely isnt straight. i think mike hit the nail on the head: too many balls up in the zone.

      • mac

        That what I love about Nova, his Fb has natural movement and he doesn’t walk guys. He works fast too – he’s fun to watch.

        • .zip file

          I agree. I like him a lot also because he way exceeded all expectations last year.

      • .zip file

        “The big knock on him throughout the minors was that he lacked deception in his delivery, which is why he never racked up as many strikeouts as his stuff suggested he should.”

        Too many balls being left up in the zone (and not up enough) plus lack of deception as Mike stated. Small sample size so far this year, but I’d like to see him back to where he was last year, stike out a few less guys and go back to the heavy sinker and ground balls. He seemed to be more effective that way.

  • Slugger27

    shields hasnt been too great? were you expecting randy johnson out of him?