Ivan Nova’s Big Day

(AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

About 20 months ago, then 21-year-old Ivan Nova wasn’t much more than an afterthought in the Yankees’ farm system. His performance was solid yet unspectacular (6.6 K/9, 2.8 BB/9, 52% grounders) in 22 starts (and two relief appearances) with High-A Tampa in 2008, not enough to earn him a 40-man roster spot after the season. The Padres, then in search of anyone young and able to throw remotely close to 90 mph, gobbled him up in the Rule 5 Draft but were so unimpressed in Spring Training that they sent him right back to the Yanks at the end of camp.

So Nova went about his way last year and had what was arguably his worst season as a professional. He struck out just 5.8 batters per nine innings and walked a career high 3.8 per nine, avoiding total destruction by generating 54% ground balls. It was his first taste of both the Double-A and Triple-A levels. Knowing that Nova not only had a much better chance of sticking with a big league team in 2010 if taken in the Rule 5 again, but also that they’d likely lose him to free agency if he didn’t stick (since it would have been his second time on outright waivers), the Yanks added him to the 40-man roster last December and penciled him in as a 7th or 8th starter type to stash away in Scranton.

Following a three inning relief cameo in mid-May, Nova returns to the big leagues tonight to make his first career start, an exciting moment in every player’s career. It’s all part of the team’s plan to keep their regular starters rested down the stretch and in September. He made this opportunity possible by having the best season of his career with Triple-A Scranton, striking out a career high 7.1 batters per nine, walking three per nine, and getting his usual helping of ground balls (54%). Even more encouraging is Nova’s continued trend of becoming less and less hittable; he allowed a whopping 11.0 hits per nine innings during his first full season back in 2007 (.337 BABIP), but has gradually whittled that down to 8.4 this season (.303 BABIP). Certainly not great, but pitchers that rely on the ground ball will always give up their fair share of base knocks.

In the 2008 Prospect Handbook, the first time Nova was considered one of the Yanks’ top 30 prospects according to Baseball America, he was said to have a fastball that “sits 90-94 mph” with “a solid-average curveball and changeup” as the team’s 18th best prospect. The scouting report improved a bit next year, when he was San Diego’s 30th best prospect. Those same pitches – fastball, curve, change – were now said to grade out as “above-average when they’re on.” As the Yanks’ 16th best prospect before this season, Nova had the same basic scouting report and was dubbed a number four starter in the big leagues if his command and secondary pitches improved, which is still his ultimate ceiling. Modest, but useful to a team set at the front of the rotation for the foreseeable future.

The biggest knock against Nova is his delivery, which I explained last winter in his prospect profile. It’s too smooth and effortless. There’s very little deception and hitters haven’t had too much trouble picking the ball up against him, hence the inflated hit totals earlier in this career. Here’s video of his big league debut and a minor league clip so you can see what I’m talking about. A nice and easy motion, for sure, but it doesn’t take much effort to find the ball before it comes out of his hand. If Nova could find a way to hide the ball a bit better, his stuff probably plays up a touch and improves not only the results, but his long-term outlook.

As for tonight, the Blue Jays actually present a nice matchup for the now 23-year-old. They’re an extremely impatient team, swinging at an American League worst 31.6% of the pitches they see outside of the strike zone. As you probably deduced given their homer happy ways, the Jays also hit a frickin’ ton of balls in the air, a MLB high 43.5% to be exact. Nova, a groundball fiend that is stingy with walks, plays right into Toronto’s weaknesses as long as he doesn’t catch too much of the plate. As long as he doesn’t get the jitters and elevate his pitches, he should be fine. The Jays will chase when he nibbles and the ground balls, which infrequently go for extra bases, will come. Tonight would actually be a good night to give Derek Jeter a break and let Ramiro Pena handle short on the turf, as well.

Nova’s not going to come up and give the Yanks a late-season kick in the rear by firing off dominant start after dominant start, he’s just not that kind of pitcher. What he should do is provide bulk innings and hopefully keep the game close enough that two of the Yanks’ biggest strengths – the offense and bullpen – can nail down the win. Then again, I welcome surprises.

Robbie Cano’s case for MVP

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

The end of season awards are finicky little things. Major League Baseball sets forth criteria for them while leaving plenty of room for interpretation. This often leads, in the name of originality, to a few head-smacking votes. For instance, Jason Bartlett in 2008, a year during which he had just 494 PA and accumulated 1.7 WAR, received an MVP vote. In 1996 the BBWAA voted Juan Gonzalez, 2.8 WAR, the AL MVP*. In 2003 they gave Jim Edmonds, 7.3 WAR, just 1 percent of the vote while giving Juan Pierre, 1.6 WAR, 9 percent. This means, in essence, that the voters can interpret the term “value” in any number of ways. In many ways they mold it to fit their preformed opinions. This makes it difficult to predict who will win the award.

*To me, 1996 was the worst example of MVP voting in recent memory. You cannot making a convincing case for Juan Gone. You just can’t. A-Rod produced 9.4 WAR that year. He hit .358/.414/.631 in 60 more PA than Gonzalez, and while his HR and RBI numbers weren’t as large he did hit 36 and 123 of them. That’s also because he had this other guy in the lineup with him, a guy named Ken Griffey, who hit 49 homers and drove in 140. He also produced 9.7 WAR that season. Hell, even Albert Belle had a better season than Gonzalez. He hit 48 homers and drove in 148, both more than Gonzalez, and he had a better OBP (also 4.9 WAR). In fact, every single player who received an MVP vote that year had a higher WAR than Juan Gone. I can understand writers interpreting “value” differently, but in 1996 it was just out of control.

By the numbers, the AL MVP race comes down to two candidates: Josh Hamilton and Miguel Cabrera. Both are producing ridiculous numbers and stand above the pack in most major statistical categories. Barring injury or major slump they’ll probably end the season with the most impressive statistics. One of them will likely deserve the award of best AL player. But, since that pesky word value gets slipped in we’re going to see plenty of different interpretations. Cabrera could get a demerit for playing on a non-contender, for instance.

In his column today, Joel Sherman raises Robinson Cano’s interpretive MVP case. Cano clearly doesn’t have the best numbers, but we know that voters go on more than the numbers. Sherman’s case involves Cano filling in for the injured Alex Rodriguez and carrying the team in his absence. As Sherman says, “At the moment his team needs him most, Cano not only has avoided wearing down, but is also cleaning up.” This is essentially the same case as Sabathia’s for Cy Young. Cano is not the best hitter in the league, but he is the best hitter on the best team in the league. That will certainly garner him at least a few first place votes.

At this point Hamilton has the best case for AL MVP. He leads the league in BA, is second in OBP, SLG, and wOBA (all to Cabrera), and has the highest WAR. That WAR, 7.0, leads the second place hitter by a full win. That second place hitter: Robinson Cano. Even considering Cano’s votes for being the best hitter on the league’s best team, Hamilton should still finish ahead at this point. He is, after all, the best hitter on the AL West leader. He also stands out more among teammates. While the Yankees have Brett Gardner, Nick Swisher, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, and Derek Jeter among the top 35 in WAR, the Rangers have just Michael Young. Hamilton has been doing it all.

Plenty can change between now and October 4, and that’s precisely Sherman’s point. If Cano does continue producing in A-Rod’s absence, he’ll curry much more favor with the voters. Sherman brings up last year’s AL MVP award, where (he claims) Joe Mauer won it in the final weeks by carrying his team in Justin Morneau’s absence. But that ignores the overriding sentiment that Mauer had the award locked up by mid-August. The best example I can recall is in 2004, when there was no clear-cut MVP heading into September. Vladimir Guerrero, Gary Sheffield, Manny Ramirez, and David Ortiz were all producing excellent numbers, and even lighter hitting guys like Ichiro and Miguel Tejada were making cases. But in September Vlad went on a tear, putting up a .482 wOBA and leading his team to the playoffs. That was the tipping point in the voting. (Even though Ichiro had the best WAR in the league.)

We could certainly see a similar case this year. A-Rod won’t be back for almost two weeks, so Cano has plenty of time to make his case. If he hits anything near what he has in the six games A-Rod has missed — 9 for 24 (.375) with four walks (.464 OBP) and five extra base hits (.917 SLG) — he could certainly gain status in voters’ eyes. If the Yankees stay in first place during that stretch, all the better. And then there’s the rest of September, during which the Yankees will likely fight closely with Tampa Bay for first place in the East. Cano’s continued production combined with Yankees’ success could go a long way.

At this point, with 124 games in the books, Robinson Cano is not the AL’s most valuable player. Josh Hamilton owns that distinction. That leaves 38 games for Cano to make his case. He has and advantage now, since his production is magnified because of his team’s situation. A strong, April-like run could vault him from also-ran to MVP favorite. Sherman is right. Yankees fans should start breaking out the M-V-P chant. He might not be leading now, but Cano certainly has an opportunity to bring home the hardware.

Fan Confidence Poll: August 23rd, 2010

Record Last Week: 5-2 (46 RS, 26 RA)
Season Record: 77-47 (663 RS, 501 RA, 79-45 Pythag. record), one game up
Schedule This Week: @ Blue Jays (three games, Mon. to Weds.), Thurs. OFF, @ White Sox (three games, Fri. to Sun.)

Top stories from last week:

Please take a second to answer the poll below and give us an idea of how confident you are in the team. You can view the Fan Confidence Graph anytime via the nav bar above, or by clicking here. Thanks in advance for voting.


Bombers bash Mariners in 10-0 drubbing

In early May, CC Sabathia had a win taken away from him when the umpires in Boston pulled the teams off the field with two strikes and two outs on Victor Martinez. Sabathia was just a strike away from an official game, and he would ensure today that early-season history would not repeat itself. Working quickly, Sabathia threw six shut-out innings before the rains held up the game for 57 minutes, and home runs by Austin Kearns and Robinson Cano gave the Yanks a 5-0 lead. When the rains let up, the Yanks tacked on five more, and the Mariners mounted nary a rally en route to a 10-0 Yanks’ victory.

CC goes six strong

CC delivers. Credit: AP Photo/Kathy Willens

As the Yanks and Mariners prepared for the rubber match of a three-game set, the stars seemed to align for exactly the kind of game that unfolded on Sunday afternoon. CC Sabathia had dominated the Mariners all season and had dominated everyone at home. He obliged by turning in a vintage CC performance, going six innings on three hits and no walks while striking out eight. He threw 76 pitches, and the only thing that prevented him from going deeper into the game was the weather.

For CC, the win was his 17th on the season and his 10th at home. He’s undefeated in the Bronx with a 2.77 ERA and 81 strike outs in 91.1 innings. CC just loves pitching in the Bronx, and he dominated both Ichiro Suzuki and Russell Branyan on Sunday afternoon, two hitters who had destroyed the Yankees’ pitchers all weekend.

On Sunday, CC worked fast. The Yanks and Mariners played the first 4.5 innings in around an hour and a half, and CC didn’t allow a hit until the top of the 5th. He was going to get that win before the rain came, and the rain itself allowed the Yanks to rest CC. With his six innings, he’s now at 187.2 innings on the season, and with the Yanks up 5-0 on a weak-hitting team, the game was in the bag. The Yanks’ win expectancy was at 97 percent when the tarp came out, and the weather saved CC from a pair of unnecessary innings. Let’s save those bullets for October.

A phantom tag

Jorge tags Franklin Guttierez with an empty mitt. Credit: AP Photo/Kathy Willens

In the fifth inning, with the rains falling, the Yankees and CC ran into a spot of trouble. The Yanks had a 1-0 lead on an Austin Kearns home run, and CC and the Yanks could see an official game in their sights. The Mariners, however, had a rally in mind. Franklin Guttierez doubled down the left field line, and after a Casey Kotchman fly out, Adam Moore lined a single into right field. Nick Swisher came up throwing.

The laser from Swisher beat Guttierez to the plate, and Jorge Posada caught the ball, blocked the plate and seemingly tagged out the runner. Sam Holbrook called the Mariners’ runner out at the plate, and the Yanks had their lead in tact. It was the closest the Mariners would come to scoring, and replays showed that the score should have, in fact, been 1-1.

The problem with the Posada tag was that he didn’t actually make it. Jorge had the ball in one hand and tagged Guttierez with the empty glove. It wasn’t the brightest of plays by Jorge; he had enough time to put the ball in his glove and nail Guttierez properly. But Holbrook didn’t position himself in front of the play, and the Yanks’ catcher sold the out.

After an IBB, Robbie goes yard

Robbie goes boom. Credit: AP Photo/Kathy Willens

For some reason, opposing managers have decided that facing the Yanks’ clean-up hitter with the bases loaded is preferable to facing Mark Teixeira with two runners in scoring position. In the bottom of the fifth after a Derek Jeter walk and a Nick Swisher single followed by an Ichiro error put runners on second and third, Luke French and the Mariners intentionally walked Mark Teixeira.

That walk marked the fourth time this season Mark Teixeira has been intentionally put on first to load the bases. In two of the three previous times, Alex Rodriguez has followed with a grand slam. Today, with A-Rod on the DL, the onus fell on Robinson Cano, and he obliged. On the first pitch, Cano took a dead-red change-up 425 feet into the right field bleachers, and the Yanks had their 5-0 lead. Cano would add two more RBI later in the game for 86 on the season to go with his 25 home runs.

Cano on Sunday went 2 for 2 with runners on scoring position, and although clutch hitting is an overrated way to analyze the game, his hitting in these situations has vastly improved this year. Last year, he batted just .207/.242/.332 with runners in scoring position. This year, in 158 plate appearances before Sunday, Cano was batting .302/.405/.512 with runners in scoring position. He walked eight times in all of 2009 with runners on second or third; he’s already taken a base on balls 24 times in those situations this year. He’s becoming more patient and is driving the ball with authority. With A-Rod out, he’s a fine clean-up hitter.

Odds and Ends

Yeah, baby. Credit: AP Photo/Kathy Willens

Lance Berkman may have been the big name pick-up for the Yanks at the trade deadline, but Austin Kearns has been the impact player. His home run in the fourth was his second for the Bombers, and he’s now 14 for 41 in his short stint in the Bronx. He’s the type of player who should be on the Yanks’ bench to start the season, and the Yanks would do well to keep him around next year.

Joba Chamberlain pitched 1.1 scoreless innings to close out the game. His ERA is now 4.80, and although his FIP stands at 3.10, his regression has been a welcome addition to the bullpen. Perhaps anointing him the eighth inning guy wasn’t the proper approach in the first place. Joba’s still very young and could still be a very valuable member of the Yanks’ pitching staff in the future. He’s thrown 12 innings over his last 11 outings, allowing just a run in the process, and he’s been more economical with his pitches as well.

The Yankees are now hitting .419 with the bases loaded this year, and Cano’s grand slam was the team’s 10th of the season, tying a franchise record. This is the first time in team history three players have had at least two grand slams each. Those players are A-Rod, Jorge Posada and Robinson Cano.

Both Tampa Bay and Boston won this afternoon so the Yanks’ AL East lead remains at 1 over the Rays and 6.5 over the Red Sox. By winning though, the Yanks tick another day off the calendar as a playoff spot draws ever nearer.

Graphs and Numbers

The end of the game was but a formality. Boxes: ESPN, FanGraphs

Up Next

The Yankees are fleeing the country. They’re heading up to Toronto for a three-game set against the Blue Jays. Ivan Nova (0-0, will make his first Major League start. Toronto will counter with Brandon Morrow (9-6, 4.45). The game starts at 7:07 p.m.

Suttle’s hot hitting continues in a pair of wins

John Nalbone has quotes from Mark Newman about the promotions of Manny Banuelos and Dellin Betances.

  • Double-A Trenton lost. Dan Brewer had a pair of hits including a solo jack, but Corban Joseph and Austin Romine combined for 11 hitless at-bats. Damon Sublett singled twice and walked while Matt Cusick had a triple and homer among his three knocks. Andrew Brackman allowed one run and struck out a pair in five innings while J.B. Cox allowed a three of runs in just under two innings.
  • High-A Tampa won the first game of their doubleheader. Bradley Suttle’s hot streak continued with a solo jack though Melky Mesa did nothing productive behind him. Craig Heyer tossed seven innings of one run ball in a complete game effort.
  • High-A Tampa won the second game as well. Suttle did it again, this time with a double and two walks. Melky Mesa atoned for game one with a homer. Nothing exciting on the mound.
  • Low-A Charleston lost. Slade Heathcott was hitless in four at-bats and J.R. Murphy had the night off, so it was a rather boring night offensively. Kelvin Castro doubled. Yippee. Shane Greene, just up from Staten Island amidst the promotion madness, allowed just one run and struck out seven in six innings.
  • Both Triple-A Scranton and Short Season Staten Island had their games canceled because of the weather. Neither game will be made up.
  • The Rookie GCL Yanks were off.

Regular old DotF returns tomorrow.

Open Thread: End of a successful homestand

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

I wasn’t around to see most of it, but the Yankees went 5-2 on the homestand, and in the end that’s all that matters. The next 16 games are going to be pretty important, because that’s basically the last “easy” stretch of the season for the Yanks before they run the gauntlet in September.

Anyway, here’s tonight’s open thread. The ESPN Sunday Night Game features the Twins and the lowly Angels (Baker vs. Weaver), which is pretty much the only thing going on tonight. Joe Mauer’s hitting .467/.549/.707 in his last 22 games. He’s good at this baseballing thing. Talk about whatever you want, so enjoy.

Sabathia makes Yankee history

By holding the Mariners scoreless for six innings before the rains came this afternoon, Yankee ace CC Sabathia quietly set a franchise record. With his 16th consecutive start of at least six innings and no more than three earned runs, CC broke a tie with Ron Guidry for the longest such streak in franchise history.

Gator’s streak came during his 1978 Cy Young Award winning season, and as Sabathia piles up the traditional counting stats, his Cy candidacy will grow stronger. I’m not sure I’d give it to him, but just being in the discussion is enough to make me happy.