Early in the 2013 season, it appeared that Ivan Nova would fall into the What Went Wrong category. Through his first three starts he allowed 10 runs in 14.2 IP and hadn’t recorded as much as a single out in the sixth inning. In the third inning of his fourth start, he exited with what appeared to be an elbow injury about fifteen seconds after trainer Steve Donohue came to check on him. His season had disaster written all over it.
Given how many young pitchers undergo the procedure every year, it would have surprised few if Nova required Tommy John surgery. Thankfully, that turned out not to be the case. The Yankees quickly assured us it was a triceps injury, abating some of the fear. About a month later he was back on the roster, pitching out of the bullpen. Apparently, something clicked for him between the injury and the return.
Able to air it out in shorter appearances, Nova let loose with fastballs that, for the only time in his career, consistently exceeded 95 mph. Even more impressive was how he kept the velocity up for a five-inning relief appearance against the Mets, allowing just one run while striking out six. Unfortunately, due to the returns of Mark Teixeira and Kevin Youkilis, the Yankees had to option Nova. It seemed like poor timing for the move, given his resurgence.
Nova didn’t let the demotion get him down, and his persistence paid off. After about two weeks in the minors he got the call again to make a spot start against the Rays. It went well enough, as did his follow-up appearance, a 5.2-inning mop-up job against the Orioles. That earned him a spot in the rotation, wherein he produced one of the best second halves in the majors.
In 87.1 post-ASB innings Nova produced a 2.78 ERA, seventh best in the American League and good enough to bring his season-long ERA down to 3.10. His velocity had dipped back to normal levels, and actually took a further hit in his final four starts. And his peripherals looked a lot like his career numbers. So we must ask the question, was Nova actually good or did he merely get lucky?
Part of the answer is that Nova’s second half peripherals are a bit deceiving, in that they’re arbitrary end points. If you look at his peripherals from the time of his return from the DL, a bit less arbitrary in nature, his peripherals look a bit better. Then there’s the issue of peripherals not being a true measure of a pitcher’s ability. Some pitchers are better at inducing poor contact, meaning they’ll out-perform their peripherals. Other issues play roles, including focus and recovery.
All of that is a long way of saying that it’s incredibly difficult to judge whether a pitcher is lucky or good based on a single season, never mind a portion of a season. Add in Nova’s inconsistent performances for the last few years, and he becomes even more of a mystery. We’ve seen him pitch like one of the best in the league, and we’ve seen him pitch like a guy who will scramble for minor league deals in his late 20s. How could we possibly know which Nova pitches for the Yankees in 2014?
We can leave that speculation for another time, when we’re bored in January and February. For now we can reflect on Nova’s 2013 and how his resurgence helped make the season enjoyable for that much longer. The pitching staff, considered a strength before the season, broke down as CC Sabathia and Phil Hughes got knocked around start after start. Nova stepped up mid-season and gave the Yankees quality innings every fifth day. Without him, they wouldn’t have remained in contention for as long as they had, and they could have been staring down their first losing season since 1992.
Instead Nova did answer the challenge, not only salvaging some respectability in 2013, but giving the team hope for 2014 and beyond. In a season when so many things went wrong, Nova was one of the bright spots.