What we learned about Ivan Nova in two starts

(AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

As baseball fanatics we’re an excitable bunch, but nothing quite piques that excitement like a rookie who helps the team right away. That can be a hyped prospect like Joba Chamberlain in 2007, but it doesn’t have to be. Ivan Nova has demonstrated that in the past few weeks. He fit into no one’s top 10 Yanks prospects, but he has come up and helped the Yankees when they needed it most. He’ll take at least one more turn in the rotation, giving the Yanks some flexibility while Andy Pettitte remains on the shelf.

It can be tough to objectively judge a young pitcher through just two starts. Sometimes pitchers get hot at the right time and deceive us for a while. Other times they succeed because the opposing team is unprepared. As the scouting report on Nova makes its rounds we might see teams take a different approach. But for now we’ve seen great success. He only needs to keep doing these things for a couple more turns through the rotation.

Either the guns are hot or he’s gassing hitters

I firmly believe that PitchFX readings in both Toronto and Chicago were a bit hot for the past week. Phil Hughes averaged a mile per hour faster than normal on Wednesday night, and on the same night Javy Vazquez sat around 90 for the first time in a long time. A.J. Burnett averaged about 94.5 mph on Friday night, which is way above his season average. Joba Chamberlain hit 100 yesterday. This all sounds a bit suspect, so I’m more apt to believe that the gun runs hot. It’s more plausible than all of these guys throwing way harder than they have for most of the season.

The scouting report on Ivan Nova has him sitting 92-94, but in his two starts he has averaged 94 per PitchFX, touching 97 at times. I’m pretty sure that this isn’t his actual reading. But even if the actual speed is off, his fastball does have a lot of life on it. It’s not the vertical break you see from Hughes and David Robertson, but it still gets in there quickly and has decent movement. He also throws it a ton, 63 out of 88 pitches yesterday and 47 of 73 on Monday, and throws it for strikes.

He’s not exactly a three-pitch pitcher

Nova boasts just two non-fastball pitches, a curveball and a changeup. As Mike said in the scouting report, his change seems to be his best secondary offering, while the curveball “remains inconsistent.” Yet he’s gone to the curveball readily in the majors, to the neglect of the changeup. That got him into some trouble on Monday, but it worked out well yesterday.

The only real mistake Nova made against the Jays was the hanging curveball to Jose Bautista. That was one of 18 curveballs thrown, and while it was the worst the others weren’t a ton better. It was basically the only pitch that the Jays beat him with. He threw just six for strikes, and generated no swings and misses. Meanwhile he threw just eight curveballs, five for strikes and three swinging. After a performance like that it might seem like he’d go with the changeup more often.

Instead, he did the exact opposite. Just one of his 88 pitches yesterday was a changeup thrown for a strike, while 24 were curveballs. That pitch was much better this time around, as he threw 13 for strikes and generated three swings and misses. Good on Nova for recognizing that it was working. I still wonder, though, what happened to the changeup that has served as his best secondary pitch.

He generates grounders without keeping the ball down

When we see a pitcher who keeps the ball on the ground, we typically think he throws low in the zone. Tim Hudson, Brandon Webb, and other sinkerballers make their livings in the bottom third, and if they’re truly elite the bottom quarter of the zone. In the minors Nova had a healthy groundball rate above 50 percent, and through his first two starts he’s stayed on a similar pace. Of the 43 balls put in play against him 22 have been on the ground. Yet he doesn’t really keep the ball low, as you can see in his strike zone plot from yesterday.

There was a bit more activity low in the zone on Monday, but not to the point where I’d say he’s living down there. Not even close, really. Which is fine. Groundballs can come any way a batter hits them. It’s just odd to see so many grounders generated from pitches high in the zone.

He throws strikes

In his two starts Nova has thrown 161 pitches, 102 of which have been strikes, or 63 percent. That’s what you want to see out of a young pitcher. He might not always be able to generate so many swinging strikes — about 9 percent — but if he keeps putting it in the zone, and if opponents keep hitting it on the ground, he might be able to sustain that success. Even when he’s not throwing strikes he avoids the walk, having issued just two free passes total in his two starts.

Signals of future success

No, Nova will not sustain the 1.93 ERA he has posted to this point. But there are indicators that he could perhaps continue pitching this well. Beyond the strikes throwing, the walk avoidance, and the ground balls, Nova also has excellent strikeout and home run numbers.

FIP gets a reputation for being a predictive stat, but I’ve never interpreted it that way. It tells us what happened, but only what happened without any regard to fielding. Nova’s 2.89 FIP isn’t based off what his ERA should be, per se, but instead measures his performance in terms of strikeouts, walks, and home runs — which are, again, things that actually happened. It just assumes zero responsibility for defense. While that’s clearly not true, it’s also clearly not true that the pitcher has 100 percent control over his defense, which is what ERA describes.

Nova’s ability to limit fly balls also bodes well for his continuing success. While we have seen plenty of young pitchers come up and get lucky on fly balls, only to experience regression when a few of them start leaving the ballpark, we haven’t seen this from Nova. He has allowed just one home run, which represents 7.7 percent of his fly balls allowed. That makes for a 3.23 xFIP, which is more of a predictive measure than FIP, because it substitutes home runs for theoretical home runs. Nova also has a 3.18 tERA, which is a component ERA based on batted ball type. Even in the complex SIERA formula he sits at 3.19.

Of course, his ability to keep inducing grounders, striking out hitters, and avoiding walks might change as the scouting report gets around. But by all current indications Nova has not only been very good, but could continue to be this good for a while. It’s a pleasant surprise for sure.

Fan Confidence Poll: August 30th, 2010

Record Last Week: 3-3 (34 RS, 33 RA)
Season Record: 80-50 (697 RS, 534 RA, 82-48 Pythag. record), tied for first in the AL East
Schedule This Week: vs. Athletics (four games, Mon. to Thurs.), vs. Blue Jays (three games, Fri. to Sun.)

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Nova nails first MLB win in 2-1 thriller

Amidst rumors of an MLB probe, Yankee rookie Ivan Nova threw a gem against the White Sox on Sunday afternoon. He held the Chicago offense to one run over 5.2 innings, and the Yanks’ bullpen, shaky on Saturday night, spun 3.1 scoreless innings as the Yanks grabbed the rubber match of this three-game set 2-1.

Nova settles in

AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh

Ivan Nova isn’t one of the heralded arms leading the Yankee farm system this season. He doesn’t generate the same kind of buzz as a Brackman, Betances or Banuelos does. But for the second straight start, he has beguiled Major League hitters, lending stability to a shaky Yankee rotation. On Sunday, he earned himself the game ball as he picked up his first Big League win.

As he did against Toronto, Nova showed confidence in his stuff on Sunday. He averaged 94 with a live fastball and hit 96/97 regularly. He showed good velocity separation with his change-up and threw his curveball for strikes as well. As the stuff was there, so too were the results. Through 5.2 innings, he struck out seven Chicago hitters, and the White Sox lone run came on a Juan Pierre RBI single. The Yankees needed a good pitching performance, and Nova, all of 23 years old, delivered.

After the game, Joe Girardi announced that Nova would start next weekend against Toronto, and it will be interesting to see how a team fares against him in his second turn in short order. Nova is clearly on a short leash; he started leaving the ball up in the sixth, and Girardi took no chances after just 88 pitches. The Blue Jays, as we saw, are a solid offensive club, and facing them will be a true test for a pitcher who could be a key player in the Yanks’ rotation in September.

Let the good Thames roll

Marucs Thames does the hokey pokey. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

With Gavin Floyd on the mound, the Yanks couldn’t get much of anything going, but Marcus Thames came through in the second. Pressed into service against a right-hander because the team wanted to give Jorge Posada and Mark Teixeira remains sidelined by a sore hand, Thames led off the sixth with a booming home run to left field. The Yankees had a 1-0 lead they would not relinquish.

“I’m a power guy,” Thames said after the game. “And it’s big for power guys: You have to get into a rhythm to get some stuff going. But I know my role, so I don’t need to start putting pressure on myself. I’m just glad if I hit the ball hard every time I get a chance.”

For Thames, this homer was his ninth of the season and his fifth in his last four starts. On the season, he is hitting .320/.401/.544 in limited playing time. Considering how badly a pair of Brian Cashman‘s other off-season pick-ups have fared, Thames’ solid play is a breath of fresh air for the Yanks. He’s a true weapon off the bench and has delivered during his starts as well. As long as the Yanks don’t need Thames to put on a glove, he’s a fine contributor and at 1 win above replacement and counting, well worth the money the Yanks are spending.

This is how you fist-pump properly. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Cervelli’s big day

For all the grief I’ve given Francisco Cervelli this season, I can’t wrap up this game without a nod to his 4-for-4 performance. It is but the second time in his professional career that the offensively-challenged catcher has knocked out four hits in one day, and on Sunday, Cervelli scored what would be the winning run.

On a 3-1 pitch to start the third, Cervelli roped a double to right field. After fouling off a bunt attempt, Brett Gardner swung away on 0-2 and lined a single to center. Cervelli scored, and the Yanks would plate no more men throughout the rest of the game.

Cervelli’s day wasn’t a good one just at the plate either. He had his moments behind the dish as well. With Joba on the bump to start the eighth inning, Paul Konerko reached on an error by Eduardo Nuñez. Brent Lillibridge came on to pinch run, and the stolen base was clearly in the mix. Lillibridge went, and Cervelli threw a strike to Robinson Cano. It was a huge out for the Yanks as Andrew Jones singled in the at-bat. Cervelli hasn’t been a defensive whiz this year, and with Jesus Montero knocking on the door, his time on the Yanks may be limited. But on Sunday, he gave the team its biggest late-inning WPA bump as the White Sox’s win expectancy dropped from 40.9 to 24.8 with that caught stealing. It was a good moment for the beleaguered Cervelli.

To end the game, Joe Girardi was able to mix and match with the bullpen. Although Kerry Wood came dangerously close to blowing the lead, the pen, so bad on Saturday, sealed the deal for Nova, Cervelli and Thames — three unlikely heroes — on Sunday.

WPA Graph

Box scores: ESPN and Fangraphs.

Up Next

With the Rays’ nailing two out of three from Boston, Tampa Bay and the Yankees remain tied atop the AL East as Boston slips 6.5 games behind the pack. The Yankees will take on the Oakland A’s tonight at 7:05 p.m. at the stadium in the Bronx. Dustin Moseley (4-2, 4.53) will face the man with a .215 BABIP and AL Cy Young candidate Trevor Cahill (14-5, 2.43).

Montero’s two homers help SWB to division title

Triple-A Scranton (5-1 win over Buffalo) thanks to the win, they are the North Division champs for the fourth straight year
Kevin Russo, 2B: 2 for 4, 1 R, 1 K – had been just three for his last 27 (.111)
Greg Golson, CF: 1 for 3, 1 R, 1 BB
Jesus Montero, C: 2 for 4, 2 R, 2 HR, 4 RBI – 12 for his last 34 (.353) with a double and four homers … one of the homers was pulled, the other went to the opposite field … that gives him 18 homers for the season, a new career high
Juan Miranda, 1B & Jorge Vazquez, DH: both 0 for 4 – Miranda struck out once, JoVa four freaking times
Colin Curtis, RF: 1 for 3, 1 R, 1 HR, 1 RBI, 1 HBP – 14 for his last 39 (.359) with seven doubles and a homer … he’s pretty locked in right now, could be a nice little surprise for the Yanks in September
Chad Huffman, LF: 2 for 4
Brandon Laird, 3B: 0 for 3 – he’s stuck in a real bad rut, just 11 for his last 76 (.145) … he didn’t run out a grounder and got booed
Eric Bruntlett, SS: 0 for 3, 1 K
D.J. Mitchell: 7 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 4 BB, 5 K, 1 WP, 9-6 GB/FB – 57 of 99 pitches were strikes … very nice for his second AAA start
Kevin Whelan: 1 IP, zeroes, 1-2 GB/FB – half of his eight pitches were strikes
Eric Wordekemper: 0 IP, 1 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 2 BB, 0 K - just four of his 13 pitches were strikes
Jon Albaladejo: 1 IP, zeroes, 1 K, 1 WP, 1 HB, 0-2 GB/FB – eight of his 13 pitches were strikes

[Read more…]

Open Thread: Heading home on a high note

Frank Thomas once hit .353/.487/.729 in a full big league season. True story. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Kinda hard to believe those two runs held up today, isn’t it? Well I’m glad they did, the Yankees needed to go back home on a high note. In fact, they’re on their way back to the Bronx right now to start their longest homestand of the season, a ten gamer that will feature visits from the A’s, Blue Jays, and Orioles. Perfect opportunity to get fat before crunch time.

Tonight’s ESPN Sunday Night Game is relevant to the Yanks, with the Rays taking on the Red Sox in Tampa (Shields vs. Lackey). Who do you want to the win? I wish there was a way for both to lose, but since there isn’t, I’m pulling for Tampa. Bury the Sox and secure a playoff spot first, then worry about winning the division. Anyway, I think the Emmy’s are on tonight as well, though I could be wrong. Not my cup of tea, but to each his own. Anyway, use the thread as you see fit.

Berkman to join Double-A Trenton for rehab tomorrow

Out since August 15th with an ankle injury, Lance Berkman is set to join Double-A Trenton on a rehab assignment tomorrow. “I don’t anticipate he’ll need a ton,” said Joe Girardi in reference to the number of rehab at-bats Berkman would need, “but you just have to see how it goes.” Rosters expand on Wednesday, so the smart money is on Berkman playing with the Thunder tomorrow and Tuesday before rendezvousing with the team in New York.

Of course, the DL stint wasn’t completely necessary to start with, but remember the Yanks were dealing with a bit of a roster crunch at the time. Alex Rodriguez and Nick Swisher were both banged up, and at one point the team had a one man bench. Hopefully Berkman comes back strong and adds some length to the lineup.

Update: Berkman’s comment: “I know fans can’t wait for me to continue my pursuit of the Mendoza line.” I laughed.

Game 130: Take the series

Save us Alex, you're our only hope. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Joe Girardi always says that he and his team focus on winning series, something the Yankees did so well and so often earlier this year. The wins aren’t coming as easily of late, but they have a chance today to capture their third series in their last four tries. Standing in their way is Gavin Floyd, who recently ran off a 12 start stretch in which he allowed more than one earned run just twice, and both of those times he allowed just two runs. However, he has allowed 15 runs (19 IP) in his last three starts, so hopefully that’s the guy the Yanks run into today.

Mark Teixeira, the player selected one spot after Floyd in the 2001 draft, gave his injured hand a try during pregame warm-ups, but he’s a no go. Here’s the lineup…

Gardner, LF
Jeter, SS
Swisher, 1B
Cano, 2B
Thames, DH
Granderson, CF
Kearns, RF
Nunez, 3B
Cervelli, C

And on the bump, it’s Ivan “don’t call me Chevy” Nova.

First pitch is scheduled for a little after 2pm ET and can be seen on YES locally or TBS nationally. Enjoy the game.