2014 Season Preview: The Breakout Candidate

Spring Training Game Thread: Yankees @ Nationals
Heyman: "Nothing doing" in trade talks about Ichiro

For most of these season preview posts, we’ve been lumping players together based on similar skills or roles or whatever. I was planning to do the same for the breakout candidates as well, but looking over the projected big league roster, not many guys fall into the category. David Phelps and Adam Warren? Yeah, maybe. But how high are their ceilings, really? Michael Pineda and Dellin Betances? They haven’t had an extended stint on the Yankees’ roster yet.

When I think about players who could be in store for a breakout season, I think about guys who have been in the show for a year or three and appear to be ready to take that next step. David Robertson broke out in 2011. Brett Gardner broke out in 2010. Robinson Cano broke out in 2009. Those are breakouts to me. Not someone who is getting their first taste of the big leagues. As far as I’m concerned, there is only one true breakout candidate on the Yankees’ roster this year.

(Leon Halip/Getty)
(Leon Halip/Getty)

These last three years have been really up and down for Ivan Nova. He has alternated being excellent and awful, which, really, isn’t all that different from most young pitchers. We’ve seen enough flashes of dominance to think Nova can pitch near the front of a rotation down the road, assuming he puts it all together at some point. Does that mean he’ll be Max Scherzer or Felix Hernandez? No, of course not. Those guys are very rare. Can he be as valuable as Anibal Sanchez for a few years though? I think we’d all take that. I know I would.

Unfortunately, taking that step forward to become a consistent, top flight starter is really tough. Many have tried, most have failed. Nova does two things that make you think he can one of the few to take that step forward: he misses bats and he gets ground balls. Or at least he’s shown the ability to do those things at various points over the last three years. After striking out 13.9% of batters faced with a 6.6% swing and miss rate in 2011, Nova has bumped it up to 20.2% and 9.1%, respectively, the last two seasons. He also sandwiched an okay 45.2% ground ball rate in 2012 around 52.7% and 53.5% ground ball rates in 2011 and 2013, again respectively.

The ability is there, we’ve seen it every so often. Nova needs to find a way to marry that 2012-13 strikeout rate with the 2011 and 2013 ground ball rates to be the best possible pitcher he can be. He did that last summer, at least for a little while. He was pretty terrible before going on the DL with a triceps problem, but he resurfaced in late-June and pitched well through the end of the season. That’s the guy the Yankees want to see all the time, the late-June through September version of Nova. That guy racked up both strikeouts and ground balls*.

* Nova’s walk rate (2.97 BB/9 and 7.7 BB%) has been pretty consistent over the last three seasons, in case you’re wondering. If he and the Yankees want to try to cut down on the free passes, great. He’s fine right where he is right now though.

I think that, in general, Nova is a tough pitcher to wrap your head around. He looks like he should be one of the best pitchers in baseball because he’s got some really good stuff, the big frame scouts love, and confidence that borders on arrogance, but there’s a disconnect between what he looks like and what he actually is. I think part of the reason why he’s so difficult to understand is the way he’s changed just over the the last three seasons. Look at his pitch usage, courtesy of Brooks Baseball:

Brooksbaseball-Chart

Look at how much it changes from year to year. When Nova dominated in the second half of 2011, it was because he emphasized his slider. Less than two full seasons later, the slider was a non-factor and the curveball became his go-to secondary pitch. The red and yellow lines head in completely opposite directions. It’s also worth noting Nova doesn’t use his fastball as much as he once did these days, and in fact for most of the last year he threw his curve more than his heater. That’s … uncommon.

The pitch usage suggests Nova is still looking for what works for for him. That’s a guy making adjustment after adjustment, not for the sake of fine tuning his game or perfecting his craft, but out of necessity. If Nova didn’t start throwing his curveball so much last year, he might have been stuck in Triple-A. Maybe the new fastball-curveball approach is the one that leads to the breakout and long-term success. We did wonder the same thing about his fastball-slider approach after 2011, remember. I don’t think we can say anything definitive about what pitch mix works before for Nova. The guy’s a mystery.

And yet, the flashes are there. The strikeouts, the ground balls, the fastball-breaking ball combination … we’ve seen it all over the last few years, just not all at the same time. Not often enough anyway. Last season was a step in the right direction but now another step forward is needed. Nova needs to put together a full, productive season from start to finish. No more wake-up call demotions to Triple-A (he’s out of options anyway), no half season of awfulness followed by a half season of excellence, just a full year from start to finish.

I think Nova is capable of having that kind of season in 2014. It’s about time he does, really. He’s making some decent money ($3.3M during his first trip through arbitration) and he turned 27 back in January, so Nova is entering what should be the best years of his career. If he doesn’t break out this summer, you have to wonder if he ever will. I wouldn’t go as far as calling this a make or break year for Nova, it’s not like he’ll never pitch in the big leagues again if he doesn’t perform well, but this is the time for him to advance his career and cement himself as a cornerstone piece for the Yankees going forward.

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Spring Training Game Thread: Yankees @ Nationals
Heyman: "Nothing doing" in trade talks about Ichiro
  • Havok9120

    I’m really excited to see what he does this year. The whole rotation really. There’s so such a low floor and high ceiling for these guys.

    • nycsportzfan

      The great part about this team is the amount of high ceiling guys. Between Betances, Tanaka, Nova, ManBan, and Montgomery, we could have a pitching bonanza on are hands.lol With the consistent Kuroda, CC,Robertson,Kelley, and Thornton meshing with the high ceiling guys.

      • hogsmog

        I might throw CC in there with the low-floor-high-ceiling guys. I could absolutely believe him throwing like an ace or getting lit up this year.

        • nycsportzfan

          Yeah, for now i’m giving CC the benefit of the doubt, and i’ll give em through May to see how hes doing before I even worry about em. He pitched good his 1st time out this spring, and did strike out 3guys in 3inn today. He won 15games and kept his ERA under the dreaded 5.00 in just a train wreck of a season for him last yr. With any lucky, he can just pick up his game alittle bit with the shape hes in, and get to something like 16-9 4.25ERA or something.

  • Donny

    In looking at the breakdown of pitch frequencies, I can’t help but notice that Nova only threw a sinker in 2013; not 2011 nor 2012. If you take a rough estimate of of his fastball which is about 35-40% (we’ll call it 35% for simplicity) and then take a rough estimate of his sinker (let’s call it an even 30%), you get a fastball/sinker combo of about 65%. That seems like it falls right in line with his previous years’ numbers. I think it only makes sense that the slight decrease in fastball usage can be directly correlated to his slight increase in his slider/curveball offerings of 2011/2013. I think the evaluation of this chart gets skewed a little by the designation of a sinker vs. fastball.

    Am I wrong to rationalize this thought the way I did?

    • Tanakapalooza Floozy

      Rationalization makes the world go round. Also, chocolate cake.

    • Mr. Roth

      I think that makes perfect sense.

      +1 for the astute observation.

    • hogsmog

      Yeah I don’t think it’s as chaotic as the impression I got from Mike. It looks like he’s traded a slider for a curve, and started mixing sinkers in with his fastballs- nothing TOO crazy. However, it is true that he hasn’t quite settled into an equilibrium.

  • Eddardo Nuney

    Ivan Nova was already a breakout pitcher in the 2nd half of last season. He was our ace as CC sucked and Kuroda tired.

    I would say Phelps is a good candidate if he gets the 5th starter job, which I think he deserves. He’s had a great Spring so far. All these kids need is a chance.

  • D$1184

    How about Betances? Can’t he be the David Robertson of 2011, of 2014?

  • Joe

    I say Nova leads the team in wins ….between 16 & 18…that’s what I truely expect from him…he can be that good…………..I HOPE !!!!!

  • I’m One

    He’s a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma, but perhaps there is a key ….

  • proday

    Very nice writeup, Mr. Axisa.

    What ever happened to Nova lacking deception, and hitters being able to get a really good look at the ball coming out of his hand. Is that still an issue people throw around, or did he work to rectify it (if it ever was an issue to begin with)?

  • qwerty

    My expectations for Nova are fairly low. Even if he continues to be up and down for the next three years I will consider a major victory for the yankees’s player development program, which has produced less than nothing for god knows how long now.

    • Mr. Roth

      In other words, you view Yankee player development the same way that I view your posts.

      • qwerty

        Why would I care how you view my posts?

  • King of Fruitless Hypotheticals

    So if he’s going to be a groundball pitcher, and let’s say he’ll usually last 5-6 innings…why don’t we have Brendan Ryan or Dean Anna play short the first 2.9 times through the order, then have Jeter PH for whomever at the appropriate time and play short the rest of the game?