The Starting Pitching Problem

Russell Martin tore into umpire Laz Diaz last night
Rafael Soriano: Closer
(REUTERS/Alex Gallardo)

The Yankees won the game, but Ivan Nova turned in another poor start last night. It was the fifth time he’s allowed at least five runs in his last seven starts, raising his season rates to a 5.60 ERA and a 5.00 FIP. The homer by Mark Trumbo and the double by Mike Trout were the 39th and 40th extra-base hits he’s allowed, respectively, the most in the game and just 12 fewer than last year even though he’s faced 426 fewer hitters. Between Nova and Phil Hughes — 5.64 ERA and 5.04 FIP — the Yankees have been fighting an uphill battle twice every five day.

Nova’s problem continues to be his command and propensity to miss up and out over the plate, a problem that was evident in Spring Training. We’re ten starts and 62.2 innings into the regular season now, we’re starting to reach the point where something has to be done. Most guys with Nova’s numbers find themselves back in Triple-A and frankly, the Yankees sent him down for less last season. It doesn’t have to happen today, but the time to seriously consider a demotion is fast approaching.

With David Robertson expected to return soon — he’s slated to throw off a mound on Saturday for the first time since suffering his oblique strain — the Yankees will be getting some much quality bullpen depth back. His return will make it easier for them to temporarily slide David Phelps into the rotation since they won’t need him in the higher leveraged role he’s been working the last two or three weeks. Heck, you can make an argument that Ramon Ortiz would be a better stopgap starter. He’s been great in Triple-A lately and they might be able to squeeze a few decent starts out of him against NL clubs during the upcoming interleague schedule before casting him aside.

Anyway, this isn’t about punishing Nova or anything like that. It’s about getting him back on track as soon as possible so he can help the team win for the stretch drive. The longer they wait to take action, the more Bad Ivan starts they’ll get and they can’t really afford that given the ultra-competitive AL East. Hughes obviously deserves the same treatment, but a) I think Nova is far more likely to rebound, and b) I’m not sure they have to rotation depth to send both guys down simultaneously. Nova took his demotion like a champ last season and came back a better pitcher for it, so I’m hopeful the same will happen in this case.

They say the first third of the season if for evaluation, the second third is for making changes, and the final third is for riding those changes out. Well, we’re exactly four team games shy of the one-third point of the campaign, and the time to make changes is fast approaching. The Yankees can give Nova another start or two to show improvement before Robertson returns to shore up the bullpen, but if things don’t start to turn around soon, they’re going to have to do something. Getting Nova back to being the pitcher we know he can be is a top priority. The sooner he gets back on track the better, but at some point the Yankees have to determine if the solution to their rotation woes is in-house before the trade deadline approaches.

Russell Martin tore into umpire Laz Diaz last night
Rafael Soriano: Closer
  • TomH

    When it comes to solving these problems, what can realistically be expected from a team’s pitching coach? Rothschild must have a hell of a lot on his plate, and between a pitcher’s starts, how much time can be given to fixing these problems without having the guy over-pitch between those starts?

    It didn’t seem that either Eiland, earlier, or, now, Rothschild has had much luck fixing broken starters: AJ, Hughes, Joba, now Nova. (Maybe I’m just forgetting successes.) It’s hard to believe these guys are incompetent, and so I wonder how realistic is it to expect solutions while pitchers are on active-duty, so to speak, with the big club.

  • Chad Gaudin the Friendly Ghost

    This is one of the many reasons I would be a terrible GM/Manager. Our rotation would be CC/Pettitte/Phelps/Mitchell/Warren by now. At least if your starters are going to struggle, they might as well be young guys learning their way (I know Nova is a young guy, but still…).

    • jjyank

      Yeah, I’m usually pretty optimistic, but that rotation will barely get the Yankees in third place, and they’d be lucky to do even that.

      I like the young guys, but Nova is young (as you noted) as well, and has already had MLB success. Warren has been getting hit pretty hard in AAA. Mitchell has done well but its not as highly regarded as a prospect. I have much more faith in Nova and Kuroda having solid seasons going forward.

  • CountryClub

    I think we should wait for Hughes’ next outing before we jump back on the bash bandwagon.

    • TheOneWhoKnocks

      Exactly. Let’s not rush to judgement on the guy, we only have 6 years of data telling us he’s terrible.
      Small sample size

      • jjyank

        Easier to say that when it’s lumped into one data pool. Hughes was a lights out reliever in 2009 and showed flashes of his prospect potential 2007 before his hammy popped and for two months in 2010. Considering his prospect status, I can understand why guys want to be patient.

        That being said, I do not believe Hughes will ever attain that potential at this point, but let’s not pretend that he’s been terrible for 6 years. That’s not exactly true.

        • Kosmo

          for 5 years if you do the math.

      • CountryClub

        Hughes has had stretches of being very good and, obviously, very bad. But that’s true of a lot of young pitchers. Out of the two, I think Nova is the safer bet. But I’d rather they keep pitching both of them for the immediate future.

        My point on Hughes was that he had just thrown 4 good games before the bad one in LA. Let’s see if he bounces right back.

  • TheOneWhoKnocks

    So we can
    A) Send Nova down for pitching to a 5 era for 2 months
    B) Send Hughes down for pitching to a 5 era the past 6 years

    Hmmm..tough call here guys

    • Mike Axisa

      As I said in the post, I think Nova is actually fixable. Getting him right ASAP takes priority over salvaging something from Hughes.

      • I am not the droids you’re looking for…

        That’s interesting and shows how far we’ve come (or more realistically how bad things have gotten) that fixing a guy no one saw coming takes precedence over figuring out the phranchise. I agree btw. But Yeesh.

      • TheOneWhoKnocks

        I think he’s fixable as well, don’t see why they can’t fix him at the ML level.

        • JohnC

          I agree. Sending him down makes no sense.

        • CS Yankee

          Because games in AAA don’t count, these games are for real.

          Hughes is unfixable, IMO, as he loves that high fastball and hates the changeup. If your living up stairs, you better have another pitch that releases at the same plane.

          Nova seems to lack confidence, after that dinger he looked as that was the norm. He has been hit harder than a cheap bottle of wine in an alley.

          All said, Nova is the only real asset here going forward. If Hughes suddenly awoke, he would be rewarded with high costs with little chance of continuing that forward.

          • mike

            unfortunately, the ceiling for Nova doesn’t appear to be that high to begin with, as his margin for error is quite slim. Best case, he becomes a mid-roatation starter for a middling team, or hidden by a good team’s offense like last year

            Hughes is bad, but potentially could regain his form and perform at a higher level than Nova…where i believe wysiwyg with Nova.

            will sending Hughes down scare him into ditching the slider and throwing the curve more….will he ultimately spot his fastball better? if both answers are no, then sending him down to convert him into bullpen help is the best way to salvage something from him.

            • TheOneWhoKnocks

              Saying Hughes has a higher ceiling than Nova at this point is absolutely comical and based on nothing other than 2007 scouting reports.

              Nova has more velocity, more movement, better secondary pitches, better K rates, better groundball rates. He’s the guy to hold onto now, Hughes time is long gone.

            • RetroRob

              Actually, Nova’s ceiling is considered higher now than Hughes.

            • Bo Knows

              It’s about time that we toss this “Nova’s ceiling” mess once and for all. Let’s face it no one has any clue what the hell this guy is capable of anymore. His velocity has grown to the point that its living in the mid-90’s his curve has become a get ahead and put away pitch, his slider is just plain nasty. Control has improved that he doesn’t walk many, his whiffs and strikeouts have risen dramatically.

              The problem is his command right now, which is a very correctable problem, especially considering command was one of his biggest strengths.

            • CS Yankee

              Why in the world would you send Hughes (or any starter) down to convert them to set-up?

              More like…take these two pitches, hone them over 30 pitches in your pen sessions…next!

          • TheOneWhoKnocks

            But that’s exactly my point. If Nova and Hughes are both 5 ERA pitchers (and they are at this point) then why send down the guy with potential?
            Send down(or bullpen) the guy who is a lost cause and keep Nova in the rotation.
            Doesn’t make sense to say we need to improve our SP production then cast off the guy who actually has a chance to turn himself around.

  • nsalem

    I think Hughes should be sent to the bullpen where there is a better chance he can contribute.
    Hughes has had 81 starts. The first half of 2010 was the perfect storm of historically bad run support and historically weak competition. He needs much improvement to even be considered back of the rotation material. I am not trying to bash him, but besides his bullpen stints his quality appearances have been few and far between. I don’t think he has the mental or physical ability to start in the AL east. He may be capable of starting somewhere in the major leagues but not in the AL East. We may be involved in a tighter race then expected and losses now may come back to bite us. Agree with Mike that Nova is the priority and he should be sent down to straighten out. I think right now Ortiz and Phelps would serve the parent club better as starters than Nova and Hughes.

    • JohnC

      Disagree. Sending him to the pen will put him back at square one. Leave him alone and let him continue to improve. This back and forth shuffling is what ruins pitchers.

      • Typical MIT Nerd

        Continue to improve? Look at his career numbers as a starter and and his numbers this year. Not only has there been no improvement, he’s actually gotten significantly worse.

        • JohnC

          He had 4 straight quality starts til the other night. one bad start and you guys are ready to throw him back under the bus.

          • mike

            He is just not the same pitcher as he was a few years ago, and while we as fans can keep looking back, the road is littered with guys with hype and moderate/immediate success who flame out over the next few years.

            there could be a milion reasons why he is not as successful as he once projected to be( injury, body development, mental, coaching,family issues…)but the fact is he is a poor pitcher who occasionally pitches ok….if his name wasnt Hughes he would have been banished a long time ago

          • Dan

            Who were those 4 quality starts against though? He faced KC twice, Seattle, and Torono. Toronto probably has the best offense out of those teams and his WHIP in that start was near 2 so he was lucky to have only given up two runs in 5.1 innings. Also, similar to Nova, Hughes can’t seem to get through a start without giving up a homerun.

            • Bo Knows

              Kansas is actually a very good hitting team, Toronto has been a good hitting team for the past couple of years…I’ll give you Seattle but just note they just ran up 21 runs off the Rangers last night

    • Robinson Tilapia

      nsalem = Michael Kay?

      I kid.

      • nsalem

        I hope you kid. Kay still thinks Phil’s 18 win season in 2010 and all-star appearance are meaningful accomplishments. Plus I eat sushi and I’m positive Michael doesn’t. Plus my head is alot smaller and not as swollen.

    • Ted Nelson

      I wouldn’t mind removing Hughes, but I disagree that Phelps and Ortiz are likely to be much better in the short-term.

  • Typical MIT Nerd

    Why didn’t they sign Oswalt? A balky back or not, if he’s got something, he’s the 2 or 3 on this team.

    • jjyank

      Meh. By the time Oswalt is ready, we may not need him anyway. If he is even healthy enough contribute. Degenerative discs in the back are bad news.

      It couldn’t have hurt to sign him, but I am in no way upset that they didn’t.

      • mike

        it would have been a safe sign, and even if they got 10-15 good starts out of him it likely would make a difference by the end of the year

    • JohnC

      Oswalt? You’re joking right?

      • Robinson Tilapia

        He was holding the baseball card upside down.

    • Ted Nelson

      There were reports from Jayson Stark that he was holding out in part to pitch close to home.

  • LarryM.,Fl.

    Keep throwing them out there with sessions in between their starts. Phelps should get all long reliefs and # 6 starter starts. He needs to be stretched out. I’m sure someone of our Fab 5 will go down with an injury sooner or later. Thus the need for Phelps.

    I believe Nova will straighten the high ball problem out with some assistance from the coaching staff.

  • StanfordBen

    Mike, can you explain why you think Nova is more likely to be fixed at the minor league level than the major league level?

    Do the low pressure games allow him to try more things out without having to worry about it counting? Or is it simply that he’d be equally likely to be fixed at either the major or minor league, but you think Phelps will hurt the team less as a major league starter in the meantime?

    • Mike Axisa

      It just gives him a chance to work on things without worrying about winning. If it’s specifically fastball command, he can go out and throw 85 fastballs out of 100 pitches in the minors and no one cares.

      I think command issues are different that say, learning a new pitch. You can learn a new pitch on the fly in MLB, sorting out command can be a much more painful process.

      • Ted Nelson

        “I think command issues are different that say, learning a new pitch. You can learn a new pitch on the fly in MLB, sorting out command can be a much more painful process.”

        I would probably say the opposite. Certainly command issues can never go away, but implementing a new pitch in the middle of an MLB season and actually using it regularly is not something I’d want to do. Would rather throw it in MiLB if I had the choice (or work on it in the off-season.)

        I don’t really see how he’ll improve his command more in MiLB than MLB.

  • Smart Guy

    i said it before the season, Pineda and nova were gonna be our worst pitchers this year both going into sophomore season to have a downside in performance as most young pitchers experience, therefore I have been right, Pineda is done for the year and Nova is clearly our worst SP aside from freddy

    Nova should not be banished though, like young pitchers you let him go through the ups and downs, sure you can send him down for a short period of time

    • RetroRob

      You were wrong about Pineda. Two months into the season and he’s yet to allow an earned run.

    • Thomas

      Except that Hughes has been just as bad as Nova. In fact, Hughes’ ERA and FIP are slightly worse than Nova (though the difference is negligible).

    • Ted Nelson

      Eh… injured and bad are not the same thing. It’s also 1/3 of the way through the season.

  • Johnny O

    Nova is 6-2, i don’t see the problem?
    -W. Matthews.

  • Kosmo

    it´s not as easy as sending Nova down to AAA, whose going to take his place ? Phelps or Garcia ? If Phelps out performs Nova then what ? You tell Phelps nice job Sonny back to the pen you go. I think not.
    Garcia could although I doubt it catch fire and pitch as well as he did last year.
    Yanks are going to run Nova out there every 5th day at least thru June.
    If this shit continues NY will undoubtedly have to make a trade.

  • Robinson Tilapia

    I actually feel more confident about these five than I did a couple of weeks ago, but you have to watch Hughes closer than Nova. Nova’s having some fixable lapses. While, last start notwithstanding, Hughes has had a much better run of starts recently, we’re still trying to figure out whether that meant anything or not.

    I also really could do without wondering which Hiroki Kuroda is showing up on any given day.

  • stuart a

    agree on the post. missing way to many pitches right over the middle waist high. getting killed on those pitches. won loss record for Nova proves how wins are a bad measurement of a pitchers effectiveness.

    thought after last year Nova was legit 15 game winner type…he also appears to me to be throwing harder this year, wonder if the added mph has hurt control….

    • Dustin

      That seems to be Nova’s problem. He’s overthrowing everything and it’s causing him to miss up in the zone and get crushed.

  • ADam

    By my count the yanks don’t need Nova until June 10. They Can skip him once, work on his mechanics/command/keeping his pitches down and then see what happens on the 10th for his next go around. If he goes out and gets shelled by the Mets you send him down and have him work on his stuff until the break and hope he comes back as the 2011 Nova for the important months…

  • Rich

    I’d give Hughes a few more starts and if he pitches like crap get him the hell in the bullpen and leave him there. He’s always been very productive and sometimes lights out coming out of the pen. Year after year of mostly poor starts is enough. Give his spot to Phelps and see what happens. And at the same time we have another dominant arm in the bullpen.

  • Voice of Reason

    5.60 ERA and a 5.00 FIP, but a 3.88 xFIP and a 3.62 SIERA. I guess it’s theoretically possible that he could sustain a .361 BABIP and an 18.8% HR/FB rate going forward but either, let alone both, would be extremely unlikely. Smart money says this quietly corrects itself.

  • Ted Nelson

    I’m not sure that most teams would send Nova down. Most teams seem to give slack to their most promising young starters coming off seasons like Nova’s 2011. That’s been true in the AL East and on contenders, as well as on bad teams.

    The other issue is whether to expect anything better from Phelps or Ortiz. I don’t really. In the “ultra-competitive AL East” (I don’t think this is much different than most seasons so far… usually all teams are within 5, 6 games in the AL East at the end of May… this strikes me as another hollow narrative) Nova might serve the team better than Phelps or Ortiz. Especially when Phelps has to be stretched back out and will most likely give you a few 3, 4, 5 IP starts… might not get much past 5 as a rookie even stretched out.

    Finally, I would start to get pissed off if they kept singling me out for demotion. Especially if I had taken it in stride and become their 2nd best SP last season. I can’t tell you how Nova will react, but he might start getting tired of being treated worse than all the other Yankees’ starters (Javy, AJ, Kuroda, Hughes… all these guys are getting a lot of rope). And what is he going to do in AAA that he can’t do in MLB? Working on a specific pitch in a results don’t matter situation makes sense, but I don’t know that there’s any difference in commanding your pitches from AAA to MLB. Maybe he needs to abandon the K push to go back to being more a ground-ball guy.

    • Robinson Tilapia

      That last sentence was something Nova already verbalized. It’s a matter of fully making that transition.

      Agree with pretty much everything you said.

      • Voice of Reason

        I die a little inside whenever a pitcher decides he wants to strike out fewer batters.

        • Ted Nelson

          I would more call it a case of a pitcher deciding to give up fewer extra base hits.

  • DM

    I think the real starting pitching problem is that there isnt much of an alternative. I like Phelps’s mound presence better than Hughes but not the rest. I suspect he’d be just as hit-able as Nova and Hughes if he was starting. I don’t think his stuff plays any better. But I do wish they’d phantom DL Garcia or something – let him get some innings on a faux rehab assignment. He’s not going to get on track pitching an inning in a blow out every 2 weeks.

  • LiterallyFigurative

    Welcome to the Wide World of Developing Starting Pitching!

    Just about every young pitcher will go through this process of good-bad-dominant-hittable performances. Sending them down just to “take the pressure off” does no good in my eyes. Nova needs to work on his command. It’s not structural or secondary pitch-related.

    Run him out there every 5th day and let him work it out.

    “Hey there, my really good young pitcher. You struggled for the better part of the month. We’re gonna have to cut you and replace you with a retread 10 years older than you, because it makes the fans feel good to see a name they recognize from the mid 2000’s. He’ll probably do as bad if not worse than you,and he won’t be improving, but that’s how he treat our good young players.”