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Ivan Nova Should Get The Joe Saunders Treatment

Last night, Kirk Gibson‘s Diamondbacks jumped on the Milwaukee Brewers, scoring five runs in the first inning and opening up an early lead. However, despite having a bit of a cushion, Gibson made the wise decision to pinch hit for his starting pitcher – Joe Saunders – in the bottom of the third inning, trusting his bullpen to handle the last six innings of Game 4.

Gibson’s willingness to not ask too much from a mediocre starting pitcher was one of the best decisions any manager has made in October, and Joe Girardi would do well to follow a similar path.

Nova, like Saunders, posted an ERA that’s quite a bit better than his underlying performance suggests is likely going forward. Neither are terrible pitchers, but they both rely on pitching to contact and hoping the ball ends up in their teammates gloves, a strategy that can lead to rallies spawning quickly and with little notice. Like Gibson, Girardi should recognize that he has a plethora of superior arms in the bullpen, most of whom could offer a better chance to keep the Tigers off the board than Nova can. In fact, if the Yankees have one big advantage tonight, it’s the depth of their bullpen.

Mariano Rivera has thrown three pitches since his final regular season appearance on September 27th – he’s basically been resting for the last eight days. Regardless of the score, Rivera should get work tonight, and there’s no reason the Yankees should limit him to just one inning of work. As long as the outcome is still in doubt, Rivera should be available to pitch both the 8th and 9th innings.

In front of Rivera, David Robertson is nearly as well rested – he’s thrown 14 pitches in this series, and also sat out the regular season finale. During the regular season, Robertson faced six or more batters in a single game 12 times. Due to his higher walk rates, you probably can’t count on getting two full innings from Robertson, but he could certainly be asked to get more than three outs, especially if his first inning of work isn’t too taxing.

At the minimum, the Yankees should be able to count on getting the final nine outs from those two, so the responsibility for Nova and the rest of the bullpen is to keep the game competitive through the first six innings. Here are the 2011 xFIPs for each of the options Girardi will have to cover innings 1-6 tonight:

CC Sabathia: 3.02 (though adjust accordingly for short rest)
Boone Logan: 3.43
Cory Wade: 3.80
Luis Ayala: 4.15
Ivan Nova: 4.16
Rafael Soriano: 4.18
Phil Hughes: 4.90

Nova ranks ahead of only Soriano and Hughes, both of whom struggled with injuries during the season and have track records of significantly better performance. In fact, despite all the jokes made about Ayala and Wade during the meltdown against the Rays last week, it’s hard to make any real case that Nova has the ability to keep runs off the board at a better rate than either of them.

Nova is probably the worst pitcher the Yankees will use in Game 5 tonight, which says more about the underrated depth of New York’s pitching staff than it does about Nova himself. However, in an elimination game where you have a fully rested bullpen and an ace ready to come out of the bullpen if need be, there’s simply no reason to ask for too many innings from a starting pitcher who isn’t better than any of the relievers that will follow him.

Unless the Yankees blow Doug Fister out of the water and open up a huge early lead, Girardi should ask Nova to simply get through the line-up once, and then he can begin the parade of relief pitchers. The Yankees bullpen is strong, deep, and rested, and their best chance for extending their season is to lean on those arms instead of on the arm of Ivan Nova.