Archive for Ivan Nova

Not from today, but basically the same thing. (Seth Wenig / AP Photo)

All 30 managers meet with the media for 30-ish minutes during the Winter Meetings, and Joe Girardi held his Q&A session late this afternoon. It’s pretty typical of Yankees people to speak a lot of words but not actually say much, and this was no different. I don’t have the audio to share because the quality is awful, but here’s a recap…

On Alex Rodriguez‘s injury

  • Girardi confirmed what Brian Cashman said yesterday, that A-Rod didn’t say anything about his hip until being pinch-hit for in Game Three of the ALCS. “His hips weren’t firing right. It wasn’t pain but he felt it was not the explosiveness … I was somewhat worried because he’d been through it on his right hip and you’d think he’d know what the feeling was like. It wasn’t firing the way he thought.”
  • A-Rod went for an MRI on his right hip after the game, and when it came back clean Girardi kept playing him. He did acknowledge Alex “did look different than he did before he got hurt.” The team doesn’t know exactly when the injury happened.
  • On losing A-Rod for the first half of next year: “It’s big. You go into an offseason and you feel you have to address certain areas and all of a sudden you get a little bit of a surprise. It’s a pretty big hole to fill, and it may not necessarily be (filled) with one person.”
  • “I’m not sure,” said the skipper when asked about any tension in his relationship with A-Rod. “It probably answers a lot of questions — he wasn’t the Alex we saw before the injury. Now we have a reason, possibly why.”

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(Jonathan Daniel/Getty)

For all intents and purposes, Ivan Nova‘s 2012 season was just short of a total disaster. Instead of taking a step forward and solidifying his spot in team’s long-term plans, he took a step back and became one of the Yankees’ biggest question marks. It’s not all bad though, he did improve his underlying performance and quite substantially as well.

Coming up through the minors, Nova never struck out more than 19.3% (7.14 K/9) of the batters he faced in a single full season. Last year, in his first full big league season, he struck out 13.9% (5.33 K/9) of batters faced. This year that jumped up to 20.5% (8.08 K/9), the 11th highest strikeout rate among qualified AL starters. He held that rate pretty steady during his brutal second half, which is oddly a good sign…

Nova’s increase in strikeouts is due to increased usage of his slider, which is something we first saw in the second half of last year. After throwing the pitch just 3.7% of the time a year ago, he upped that to 12.1% this season while scaling back the usage of his curveball and changeup. Opponents missed on nearly 40% of their swings against the pitch (39.2%, to be exact), which is far above average. That’s pretty darn close to CC Sabathia‘s slider (42.8%), just for perspective. Overall, Nova generated a swing and a miss on 9.0% of his pitches this year, up from 6.6% last year.

The strikeout rate improvement was substantial this year, and normally that would result in improved performance. For Nova, it resulted in declining performance. Tough to explain and I really don’t know how, but this isn’t a “he stinks when he strikes guys out so he should stop striking guys out” thing. His walk rate (7.5 BB% and 2.96 BB/9) was rock solid and he still got an above average amount of ground balls (45.2%), so the peripheral stats improved from 2011 to 2012. The problem was that whenever Nova wasn’t striking guys out or getting ground balls, he was giving up homers and extra-base hits. This season was a disaster for Ivan, but the increased strikeout rate (while other core stats remained steady) was certainly a nice silver lining.

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What Went Wrong: Ivan Nova

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(Mike Stobe/Getty)

I think it’s fair to say that the most positive development of the 2011 season was Ivan Nova‘s emergence as a legitimate MLB-caliber starter. The Yankees have had trouble developing starters in recent years and they needed a young, cheap arm to plug into the rotation, and Nova stepped forward to be that guy. He excelled in the second half and pitched well enough overall (3.70 ERA And 4.01 FIP in 165.1 innings) that expectations were fairly high coming into 2012. We wanted to see him take another step forward.

Instead, the 25-year-old Nova took a huge step backwards. It all started in Spring Training too, as Ivan quietly had a miserable showing in camp while everyone was focused on Michael Pineda‘s missing velocity. He allowed 21 runs and 34 baserunners in 22.1 Grapefruit League innings, a precursor of what was to come in the regular season. Nova opened the year with a solid start against the Orioles (two runs in seven innings) but struggled to keep the runs off the board after that. He pitched to a 5.60 ERA (4.90 FIP) through the end of May, allowing at least five runs in half of his first ten starts.

The month of June was much more kind to Nova, and in fact it was arguably his best month as a big leaguer. Four of his five June starts featured at least seven innings and no more than one run, including outings against the Rays, Braves, and Nationals. He closed out the first half with two nice starts, including a six-inning, two-run, ten-strikeout performance in Fenway Park immediately before the All-Star break. Nova carried a 3.92 ERA (4.19 FIP) into the break and was trending in the right direction.

That was pretty much the last time Nova was a reliable starter for the Yankees. He allowed six runs in six innings against the Angels in his first second half start, and ran off a seven-start stretch in which he allowed at six runs four times. After the White Sox tagged him for six runs in six innings on August 21st, the Yankees placed Nova on the DL after the right-hander felt a tug in his right shoulder. He was eventually diagnosed with rotator cuff inflammation that kept him on the shelf for three weeks.

(AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Shoulder injuries are never a good thing, but since Nova’s was minor I had some hope that it would explain his struggles. That appeared to be the case in his first start back, and he held the Rays to two runs in six innings with eight strikeouts on September 15th. It didn’t last though. Nova failed to complete three innings next time out and didn’t make it out of the fifth the start after that, when it was obvious Joe Girardi had a short hook given the division race. Rather than start Game 161 against the Red Sox, the Yankees instead gave the ball to David Phelps in what was then the most important game of the season.

One year after being the number two starter behind CC Sabathia in the playoffs, the Yankees didn’t even bother to carry Nova on either their ALDS or ALCS roster in 2012. He pitched to a 5.02 ERA (4.60 FIP) overall, allowing the most extra-base hits (87), the second most doubles (52), and 12th most homers (28) in all of baseball. When he made a mistake, he paid dearly. Opponents hit .288/.349/.511 off Nova this season, so he basically turned everyone into 2012 Albert Pujols (.285/.343/.516). Yikes. I know Pujols is declining, but that doesn’t exactly make it okay.

The story on Nova coming up through the minors was that he had pretty good stuff, but he lacked command and didn’t miss as many bats as expected because his delivery lacked deception. That sounds an awful lot like the guy he was in 2012, the guy who never seemed to get the hitter to foul off a mistake pitch off or have the ball hit right at some one. Opponents teed off against him whenever he missed a spot, driving the ball to (or over) the wall for big power production. He didn’t just lead the league with 87 extra-base hits allowed, he did it while only throwing 170.1 innings. Josh Beckett had a poor year by all accounts, and he only allowed 58 extra-base hits in those same 170.1 innings.

A year ago, it was easy to consider Nova a major part of the Yankees moving forward. He was their young and cheap starting pitcher who was exceeding expectations and was on his way to becoming a rotation mainstay. Rather than continue on that path this year, he took a huge step back and became a giant question mark. Maybe the shoulder injury was more serious than the team let on and a winter of rest will get him back to normal. Maybe it was just a sophomore slump. Whatever it was, the Yankees have to hope that Ivan’s disastrous second half is not an indication of his true talent level.

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Poll: The Game Two Starter

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(Alex Trautwig/Getty)

The new playoff schedule has the Yankees playing five games in five days — spanning the final three games of the ALDS and the first two of the ALCS — which means they’ll have to do something creative for their Game Two starter tomorrow night. It’s not ideal but it is what it is, nothing anyone can do. Thankfully the Bombers have a number of viable options to start that game, some better and more practical than others. Joe Girardi indicated that he will announce his Game Two starter during his pre-Game One press conference this afternoon, but first let’s run through the candidates…

Hiroki Kuroda on three days’ rest
Kuroda started Game Three of the ALDS, the first of this five games in five days stretch. He threw 105 pitches across 8.1 innings on Wednesday and would have to start Game Two tomorrow on short rest, something he has never done in his MLB career. Considering his age (37) and how his career-high workload (219.1 IP) seemed to be catching up to him in September, starting Kuroda on three days’ rest seems like a risky proposition.

It’s worth noting that if the Yankees bring CC Sabathia back on short rest of Game Three (which I am absolutely in favor of doing) and do not pitch Kuroda in Game Two, he would get pushed back to Game Four and therefore only make one start in the series even if it goes the full seven games. That is not ideal at all. Kuroda is too good to limit like that.

(Al Bello/Getty)

David Phelps
Although he threw 27 pitches out of the bullpen on Thursday, it shouldn’t be a problem to bring Phelps back tomorrow. He started and threw 86 pitches last Tuesday, so giving the team 80 pitches if needed in the spot start doesn’t feel like too much to ask. Phelps shouldn’t worry anyone considering how well he closed out the season, with just six runs allowed in his final 21 innings. The problem here is that if the Yankees use him for the start, he won’t be available out of the bullpen until at least Game Four and maybe even Game Five. That could be problematic, especially if Joba Chamberlain‘s bruised elbow keeps him out of action for even just the first few games of the series.

Ivan Nova or Freddy Garcia
No offense to these two, but I don’t think I can make a decent case that either should start. Both pitched so poorly down the stretch that they lost their rotation spots late in the season, and it would be wishcasting to run either of them out there expecting a full 100-ish pitch start that gives the Yankees a chance to win. They are options because they’re stretched out and have experience in the postseason, but they’re more “break glass in case of emergency” options that anything else.

* * *

The Yankees announced earlier this morning that Cody Eppley took Eduardo Nunez‘s spot on the ALCS roster, giving the team a full 12-man pitching staff. That may be an indication that they’re leaning towards Phelps for the Game Two start but it’s not a guarantee; they could have easily added the extra reliever knowing both Kuroda and Sabathia will start on short rest and might not throw as many pitches as usual.

It’s worth noting that since Monday is a travel day, running through the entire bullpen in Game Two won’t be a concern since everyone is guaranteed rest the following day. It should also be a throw day for Phil Hughes, who could pitch in relief if needed. Bringing Sabathia back for Game Three means Phil would not start until Game Four on Wednesday at the earliest. Using him for an inning or two on Sunday has to be on the table.

Who should start Game Two?
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Categories : Pitching, Playoffs, Polls
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This surprises me a bit, but Joe Girardi announced this afternoon that David Phelps will start in place of Ivan Nova tomorrow. It surprises me only because I thought they would wait to see if they needed to use Phelps in relief tonight before making the call. Either way, it’s probably the right move. Nova’s been terrible and these games are too important.

Categories : Asides, Pitching
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This is my twelfth “thoughts following” post, and eight of the first eleven have come after losses. I swear that is just a coincidence, I usually decide to do these things a day or two ahead of time. Maybe I should stop? Is it all my fault? I dunno. Two of the other three came after wins, including the doubleheader sweep of the Blue Jays last week. The other one came after a rain out.

1. What a miserable second half for Ivan Nova. It’s easy to forget that he carried a 3.92 ERA (4.20 FIP) into the All-Star break, but since the Midseason Classic he’s pitched to a 7.05 ERA (4.97 FIP). He’s allowed one fewer earned run in the second half than he did in the first half in 50.1 (!) fewer innings. It’s awesome that his strikeout rate (8.08 K/9 and 20.5 K%) jumped so much from last year (5.33 K/9 and 13.9 K%) while his walk rate (2.96 BB/9 and 7.5 BB%) dropped a smidge, but holy crap man, he’s getting pounded when he’s not striking guys out. Opponents have hit .288/.348/.511 with 28 homers off Nova this season, which is basically Adam Jones (.292/.340/.517 with 32 homers). I wanted to believe that he was going to exceed expectations after last year, but right now he’s the guy he was projected to be coming up through the minors: a back-end starter who gets hit harder than his stuff says he should because he lacks deception.

2. If the Yankees were going to lose one game in this series against the Blue Jays, it was going to be last night’s. New York was starting their worst pitcher while Toronto was throwing their best. It would have been nice to steal that one heading into the weekend, but at least the pitching matchups for the next three games strongly favor the Yankees. It’s too bad that doesn’t guarantee anything, but I sure feel better knowing that than I would if the matchups were lopsided in the other direction. The magic number to clinch a postseason berth is just three, and I will be sorely disappointed if the Yankees return home on Monday without at least a playoff spot in the bag.

3. I’ve gone back and forth on this in my head over the last few weeks, but which would you rather be heading into the LDS: the one-seed or the two-seed? The one-seed gets to play the wildcard play-in winner, who will have theoretically burned their ace pitcher. The two-seed gets to know who they’re playing ahead of time, allowing more time for scouting and preparation. At one point I thought being the one-seed was the way to go, at another I thought the two-seed was where it’s at. Now I’m leaning back towards the one-seed. As I mentioned in the mailbag this morning, the Yankees are two back of the Rangers for the best record in the league and they hold the tiebreaker.

4. Going to step away from the Yankees for just one bullet so I can talk about the league MVP awards. Miguel Cabrera has had an amazing season, but I think Mike Trout should win the AL award rather easily. The NL is much more up for grabs. Ryan Braun is having a huge year (.319/.392/.602 with 41 homers) but I bet the voters hold last year’s PED stuff against him. Andrew McCutchen is a worthy candidate (.332/.403/.558 with 30 homers) and Buster Posey is also having a big year (.333/.405/.539 with 23 homers). He’ll generate a lot of buzz because the Giants ran away with the division, but I actually think Yadier Molina may be the NL MVP. He’s having a big year with the bat (.320/.377/.507 with 21 homers) and he’s the best defensive catcher in the game. Catcher defense is a tough thing to quantify, but just compare him to Posey — Posey has started 107 games behind the plate (28 at first and three at DH), allowed two passed balls, and thrown out 36 of 121 base-stealers (29.8%). Molina has started 128 games behind the plate, allowed four passed balls, and thrown out 34 of 72 base-stealers (47.2%). Yadi has played 168.1 more innings at catcher and opponents have attempted 49 (!) fewer steals. I doubt he wins, but I think the Cardinals’ backstop has a very strong case for being the most valuable player in the so-called senior circuit.

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Six questions and five answers today, so we’ve got a good mailbag this week. Remember to use the Submit A Tip box to send us questions throughout the week.

(Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty)

Vinny and many others ask: If the Angels are serious about not picking up Dan Haren’s option, should the Yankees be all over that?

Earlier this week there was a report indicating that the Angels plan to decline Haren’s (and Ervin Santana’s) club option for next season and instead pursue a monster extension with Zach Greinke. Haren, 32, is nearing the end of his worst full season as a big leaguer, pitching to a 4.32 ERA (4.30 FIP) in 29 starts and 170.2 innings. He’ll fail to make 33 starts or crack 210 innings for the first time since 2004, when he was with the Cardinals. Blame the lower back stiffness that led to his first career DL stint.

Based on Twitter these last few days, fans of every single team want their club to pursue Haren if the Angels do indeed decline his $15.5M option. Haren is from Southern California and has made it no secret that he prefers playing on the West Coast, so right away the Yankees are at a disadvantage. It’s also worth noting that his strikeout rate is in the middle of a three-year decline, and his fastball velocity has been heading in the wrong direction for years now. That second link is particularly scary. The back issue scares me as well, especially if the Halos do cut him loose. It’s the whole “what do they know that we don’t?” thing. Haren has been a great pitcher for a long time, and that alone makes him worth looking into. There are a number of red flags however, so any team interested in signing him will have to really do their homework.

Travis asks: Is it safe to assume that if we only carry three starters on the post season roster, Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova will have a role on the team out of the bullpen? I’m also assuming the three starters go to CC, Hirok!, and Dandy Andy.

The new playoff system and schedule really discourages the use of three-man rotations, since everyone would have to pitch on three days’ rest after Games One, Two, and Three to get away with it. CC Sabathia can do that (assuming the Yankees actually get into the postseason), but I’m not sure Hiroki Kuroda or Andy Pettitte could. I expect the Yankees to use four starters throughout the postseason, and right now the number four guy is clearly Hughes. Nova pitched himself out of the job these last two months or so.

Now does that mean Nova would automatically go to the bullpen? I don’t think that’s a given. Assuming the Yankees only carry eleven pitchers into the postseason (they could get away with ten, but I doubt it happens), four will be the starters and four other spots are accounted for: Rafael Soriano, David Robertson, Joba Chamberlain, and Boone Logan. That leaves three spots, one of which I assume will go to Clay Rapada. The candidates for the final two spots would be Nova, David Phelps, Cody Eppley, and I guess Derek Lowe (veteran presents!). Phelps seems like a given in this situation, then you’ve got your pick of the other three. I guess that decisions comes down to who throws the best the rest of the way, but frankly I would rather see the Yankees carry an extra position player in that situation, especially if Mark Teixeira‘s calf remains an issue.

Steve asks: Are the Yankees more likely to go with a iffy Brett Gardner or Chris Dickerson on the playoff roster? Can they fit both?

Ben asks: Don’t you think Chris Dickerson needs to figure into the Yankees big league plans in 2013? At least as a 4th outfielder? This guy is a great fielder and base runner and had a useful bat. Much rather have him over another Andruw Jones-type. What say you?

(Hannah Foslien/Getty)

Might as well lump these two together. If the Yankees do make the playoffs and use an 11-man pitching staff, they’ll have room for an extra bench player. That spot tends to go to a speedy pinch-runner type (think Freddy Guzman in 2009), a job for which both Gardner and Dickerson are qualified. Gardner is the better player, but he also is physically unable to hit right now. I have a hard time thinking the Yankees will carry someone on the postseason roster that can’t even swing the bat in case of an emergency. Maybe that changes and Brett is cleared to take his hacks at some point in the next six days, but that doesn’t seem likely based on everything we heard for the last four months.

As for next year, Dickerson’s situation depends largely on what happens with Nick Swisher. If they let him walk, then the outfield need will be greater and they should hold onto him. If they bring Swisher back, having a left-handed outfielder on the bench doesn’t make a ton of sense. I’m probably the biggest Chris Dickerson fan you’ll find, but he is just a platoon player at the plate. More of a high-end fourth outfielder than an everyday corner guy on a contender. As much as I would like him to see him stick with the club going forward, Dickerson isn’t a great fit for the roster right now.

Shaun asks: Hey Mike, do you know who would have home field if the Yankees and Rangers tied for the best record? Thanks.

The Yankees are currently two games back of Texas for the best record in the AL, and New York would get the nod as the top team in the circuit if they tie because they won the season series 4-3. They won’t play a tiebreaker game or anything like that, that only happens when the division title or a playoff spot in general is on the line. So yeah, the only thing the Yankees would have to do to secure home field advantage in both the ALDS and ALCS would be to finish with the same record as the Rangers, nothing more.

(Jeff Gross/Getty)

Steven asks: Mike, not sure if you’re aware, but Mike Trout is good at baseball. I was wondering, hypothetically speaking of course, if the Angels were to make him available, what sort of haul would he bring? Do you see his value getting any higher than it is right now? And, finally, what sort of package would the Yankees have to piece together to get these hypothetical talks started?

I don’t think any player in baseball has as much trade value as Trout. You’re talking about a just-turned-21 kid who has already shown he can play at a superstar level. He hits homers, steals bases, hits for average, gets on-base, and plays great defense at a premium position. Plus he remains under the team control for five more seasons, the next two at the league minimum. It’s impossible to top that, and I don’t think he could possibly increase his trade stock unless he agrees to like, a ten-year contract worth $25M or something ridiculous.

There’s no way for the Yankees to acquire Trout even if he was available. What do you start the package with, four years of CC Sabathia and one year of Robinson Cano while offering to pick up the bulk of the money? I wouldn’t take that for Trout. Offer me Mason Williams, Gary Sanchez, Tyler Austin, and a guaranteed to be healthy Michael Pineda and I still would say no if I were the Angels. If the Giants come calling and put both Buster Posey and Madison Bumgarner on the table, then yeah that catches my attention. The Yankees don’t have anything to get a trade done, I just don’t see how it would be possible. I don’t think Trout can replicate this season (or even improve on it) year after year, but he’s going to be great for a long-time. At his age and with that much cost-control remaining, he’s the single most valuable asset in the game.

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(Al Bello/Getty)

Earlier this season when the Yankees went on the big midseason run that gave them that once-comfortable ten-game lead in the AL East, they were winning consistently because of their pitching. Every night their starter was pitching not just well, but also going deep into the game. From May 22nd through July 18th, when they went on that 36-13 run, the rotation pitched to a 3.19 ERA (3.55 FIP) while averaging 6.5 innings per start. The starters were dynamite, day after day.

That hasn’t been the case of late. Andy Pettitte got hurt, CC Sabathia got hurt (twice), Ivan Nova cratered before getting hurt, and the Yankees lost their big division lead. From July 19th — the start of the four game series in Oakland — through today, the rotation has pitched to a 4.22 ERA (4.15 FIP) with an average of 6.25 innings per start. I don’t think it was reasonable to expect to the starting staff to continue pitching that well all season, but the drop-off has been quite drastic.

The Yankees have won six of their last seven games and nine of 13 overall, though the rotation as a whole hasn’t stood out during that stretch. They’ve pitch to a 4.06 ERA (3.81 FIP) during those 13 games, which is fine but not great. Better than they had been, I guess is the best way to put it. Maybe serviceable, I don’t know. The offense has scored just enough runs and the bullpen has protected just enough leads to turn those performances into wins, and frankly that’s all that matters at this point. Every win is important, no matter how ugly it is.

Anyway, what does stand out during that 13-game stretch is the performance of the club’s three non-Pettitte homegrown starters, meaning Phil Hughes, David Phelps, and Ivan Nova. They’ve started six of those 13 games and have pitched to a combined 2.70 ERA (3.40 FIP) in 36.2 innings, with the Yankees winning five of the six games. The one loss was when Phelps got rocked in Baltimore, a game the offense actually battled back to tie before the bullpen blew it in the late innings. That one stung.

The club’s veteran starters (Sabathia, Pettitte, Hiroki Kuroda, Freddy Garcia) have pitched to a 5.35 ERA (4.20 FIP) in 38.2 innings in their seven starts during this 13-game stretch. It’s not all on Freddy either, he only made one of those seven starts (three runs in 3.1 innings). Pettitte was superb yesterday, but Kuroda and Sabathia allowed at least four earned runs in four of their five total starts. The vets have combined to throw just two more innings than the kids in one more start, so they haven’t been as effective nor gone as deep into the game.

The Yankees catch a lot of grief for their inability to develop starting pitching and deservedly so, but the team’s three young homegrown starters have picked up the pitching slack in a big way these last two weeks. The veteran guys did most of the heavy lifting earlier in the season and now Hughes, Nova, and Phelps are carrying the torch. That’s usually how these things go, not everyone clicks at once, but not many times in the last few seasons have the young pitchers carried New York. Hughes has allowed more than two earned runs just once in his last six outings, and tonight he’ll look to continue this recent stretch of strong performances from the homegrown arms against the Blue Jays in the series finale.

Categories : Pitching
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Taking a look at Super Nova

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(Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

I know it has been a little while since he pitched, but I wanted to take a look at Ivan Nova‘s last outing.  It was one of his most impressive performances of the season despite it being his first start back from injury.  In total, Nova went six innings, giving up just two runs on four hits (only two of which went for extra bases) and two walks, with eight strikeouts.

Honestly, my expectations were pretty low for Nova in this start.  He has been hit hard all year, giving up a ridiculous quantity of extra-base hits en route to a 4.81 ERA (including his most recent outing).  While his strikeout rate is at a career high and his walk rate has been pretty low, one would expect him to be having a career year.  Instead, Nova has been one of the weak points in the Yankee rotation, and I figured that missing time with a shoulder injury would likely cost him his rotation spot.  However, Nova proved the doubters wrong with a strong outing.  I was curious to see what was working for him.

Looking at Nova’s outing on Brooks Baseball, the first thing that comes to mind is his fastball.  His average velocity on the pitch jumped a good 0.6 MPH, going from 93.46 to 94.07.  Just to put that number in context, an average fastball of 94.07 MPH would place Nova 7th among qualified starters in average fastball velocity (behind usual suspects Stephen Strasburg, David Price, Jeff Samardzija, Matt Moore, Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander).  With the increased velocity also came better movement, as both the vertical (by about two inches) and horizontal movement by about 2/3 of an inch) on the heater were increased.  The extra life on the pitch corresponded to a four-fold increase in whiff rate, 16% in his last outing compared to just over 4% for the rest of the season.  This is a massive difference, even though the change in velocity and movement seems to be relatively small.  For what it’s worth, Texas Leaguers shows more dramatic differences in velocity and movement.

While the improved fastball is the main thing that jumps out at me, there are some noticeable differences in Nova’s curveball as well.  The velocity of the pitched jumped about 2-3 MPH over his season average, though the vertical and horizontal break actually decreased.  This could mean that he was throwing a tighter, sharper pitch, and consequently, opposing hitters whiffed at it about twice as often as they did earlier in the season.

The fastball and curve were Nova’s bread and butter in his most recent outing, as they have been throughout the season.  He threw them about 83-percent of the time earlier in the season, and threw them nearly 90-percent of the time his last time out.  I have no idea if Nova made a mechanical change during is time on the DL — it appears he did — or if the extra rest has simply given his raw stuff a little boost.  Regardless, the extra hop on Nova’s fastball and tighter curveball seemed to be very effective in the small sample size of one outing.  At this point in the season, Nova is auditioning just to earn a spot on the postseason roster.  Unless he is absolutely lights out and another Yankee starter suffers an injury or setback, it is hard to picture Nova earning a spot in the playoff rotation.  Regardless, if he continues to show his improved fastball velocity and more effective curveball, the Yankees could have a tough decision on their hands.

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The Yankees could use some relief

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Three David Phelps photos in one day? Madness. (Jared Wickerham/Getty)

After yet another close game (though thankfully, last night’s was of the winning variety), the collective blood pressure of the Yankee fanbase is once again a little higher than optimal.  While the Yankees were able to jump ahead of the Red Sox in the early going, the inability to accomplish the mythical shutdown inning allowed the Red Sox to stay within striking distance for the majority of the game.  This has been a problem for much of the recent stretch of subpar play.

While David Robertson and Rafael Soriano have individually had very strong seasons, the Yankee bullpen, and these two stalwarts in particular, have shown mortality at particularly inconvenient times.  Robertson’s fastball velocity is down slightly from last season, and his reduction in the use of his curveball in favor of the cutter is a little puzzling.  Several recent Yankee losses can directly be tied to blowups by one or both of the Yankees’ top relievers.  While Joba Chamberlain has impressed in his recent outings, he is probably still not at the point of being relied upon to be a consistent shutdown presence in the 7th inning.  The Clay Rapada/Cody Eppley/Boone Logan trio have performed adequately, though none of them (possibly excepting Logan) really are useful against opposite-handed batters.

As the Yankees battle through the last few weeks of the season and hopefully into October, it is evident that they could use another bullpen arm with the ability to retire hitters from both sides of the plate.  Presumably, a trade is incredibly unlikely at this juncture, so whatever help the Yankees are going to find will have to come from within.  With several players on track to return from injury, the Yankees will have a few options as they shuffle their rotation to accommodate the returnees.  Here are some of the ways they can proceed, and variables to consider.

Ivan Nova

Nova should be back from injury relatively soon, but his uneven 2012 season raises questions about how he can be most effectively deployed.  He’s currently in line to replace Freddy Garcia in the rotation, but given his propensity to surrender extra-base hits, there’s no guarantee that he will be a significant upgrade.  While Freddy’s repertoire doesn’t really translate well to a short relief role (though he could be an effective long man), Nova could be an effective option for shorter stints, allowing him to focus on his fastball and slider and not worry about his other pitches.

David Phelps

Andy Pettitte is also on his way back, though his timeline for returning to the rotation is unclear at the moment.  The Yankees are currently planning to let Pettitte build his innings back up on the Major League roster, which will likely entail him making piggyback starts with one of Nova, Garcia, or Phelps. If Nova and Pettitte both make it back into the rotation, Phelps likely gets bumped back into a relief role.  Phelps has been very impressive when used as a reliever this season (albeit in a small sample), so he could be an intriguing option to add more depth to the Yankee bullpen.

Cory Wade

Yes, Wade has been incredibly disappointing in the majors this year, but he has handled himself fairly well since being demoted to AAA (2.27 ERA).  That said, his strikeout rate is down compared to 2011 and his walk rate is elevated, and both trends continued when he was sent down to the Scranton traveling road show.  Even though Wade is not pitching as well as he did last season (or early this year), it could be worth giving him some innings to see if he can get his confidence and stuff back.

Mark Montgomery (obligatory)

I know the Yankees have said that they will not call up Montgomery this season, but I think it is an option worth considering.  He has continued to dominate his minor league opposition, and I’m not sure if there is a serious developmental case to be made for keeping him in the minors much longer.  AA hitters simply have no answer for his slider, and he is striking them out in droves.  While there is some obvious risk inherent in calling up a minor leaguer to contribute to a playoff chase (some may fear that getting hit around could ruin him forever, a la Mark Melancon), Montgomery has the talent and upside to be a shutdown guy right away.  I trust that the Yankees know better than me regarding his big league readiness, but the possibility that Montgomery could be a shot in the arm to the Yankee bullpen (a la rookie Joba Chamberlain or Francisco Rodriguez back in the day) is hard to ignore.  Considering the Yankees’ recent bullpen struggles, it seems worthwhile to reconsider the calculus of whether keeping Montgomery down is really the best option.

While a Montgomery callup doesn’t seem forthcoming (though I will continue to dream), returning Phelps to the bullpen could give the Yankees the reliable middle-inning arm that they have been missing since Cory Wade began to struggle.  While Montgomery has the highest upside, Phelps is the safest bet.  Phelps has excelled in the role when called upon this season, and since the Yankees may not want to overwork Chamberlain and Robertson, it makes sense to have another reliable middle relief arm who can pitch to both righties and lefties.  It would be hard to expect much out of Nova or Wade if they were given a relief role, and they would definitely have to impress in their few opportunities to earn their spot.

Of all the problems facing the Yankees this season, the bullpen is probably the least of them.  That said, it has contributed directly to several losses, and the Yankees do have several decent options available that could improve the situation.  I assume when Pettitte and Nova are back, we will start to see some pieces in motion, as the Yankees look to fortify the middle innings.

Categories : Death by Bullpen
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