A year ago, when the Pirates were alive in the playoff race, they made what felt like a fairly uninspiring deadline trade for J.A. Happ. Happ was almost a giveaway, and no one really batted an eyelash about the Pirates’ tiny upgrade, but then they made some very minor tweaks and Happ pitched the rest of the season like one of the better starters in the league. There was, at one point, an actual conversation about whether Happ should start the one-game playoff opposite Jake Arrieta. Things were weird.
This year, with the Pirates alive in the playoff race, they made what felt like a fairly uninspiring deadline trade for Ivan Nova. As I recall, news broke after the actual deadline had passed, and it was a small story because Nova didn’t have a lot of value. Nova, also, was almost a giveaway. The move drew criticism, with many saying the Pirates weren’t doing enough. Ivan Nova, after all, is no Chris Sale.
Guess what? Nova has started five games for Pittsburgh, and in those games the Pirates are 5-0. He’s run a sub-3 ERA, and while his strikeouts haven’t spiked, he’s sitting on one walk. One walk, out of 121 batters faced. Nova walked three of 23 batters in his final start with New York. All of a sudden, the Pirates have turned Ivan Nova into a strike machine, and it’s funny what happens when you have a pitcher who consistently gets ahead. The batters, you see, do worse.
As with Happ, the Pirates haven’t had to do anything drastic. Nova’s repertoire looks mostly the same. Nova’s delivery looks mostly the same. Ray Searage himself has said that Nova’s been easy to work with because there’s just not much to do. If the Pirates have done anything, it’s just encourage Nova to pitch with more confidence. Through July of this year, Nova ranked in the 15th percentile of all pitchers in rate of pitches thrown while ahead in the count. In August, Nova ranks in the 88th percentile. Where he was consistently behind, now he’s consistently ahead. This is all very fundamental.
We can look at Nova’s rolling zone rate over time:
The Pirates have Nova working in the zone more often. As for a rolling-average plot of first-pitch-strike rate:
First-pitch strikes more often. And the differences here aren’t huge. I’m going to show you pitch-location heat maps, comparing Nova through July to Nova in August. You can tell that the heat maps are, I don’t know, siblings? They’re just definitely not twins.
The Pirates have Nova working up a little more, and they’ve shifted him a bit, over the plate. Where Nova, previously, was a nibbler with his fastball, now he’s less focused on trying to stay on the edges. Very generally, Nova still has a familiar-looking pitch pattern, but there’s just more confidence there, so there’s more aggressiveness, too. He’s not a strikeout pitcher, and he’s not going to be a strikeout pitcher, but there’s nothing wrong with a low-walk pitcher who can work in the 90s. The Pirates can generate outs behind him.
The explanation might be obvious. Nova no longer is pitching in the American League, and he’s no longer working in AL East ballparks. PNC Park is very forgiving, and maybe Nova just needed to believe that not every fly ball is a threat. This doesn’t necessarily have to be Ray Searage magic. Maybe the Pirates simply identified the right guy to add. Nova hardly cost them anything. Now he’s working to cost some other team a potential playoff spot.