Ivan Nova’s rookie season ended on a sour note Thursday night with a strained forearm and a loss to Detroit. While his campaign probably received a bit too much attention as a result of his gaudy win total, the 24-year-old’s season could hardly qualify as anything less than a success. Nova ranked fourth among all rookie pitchers with a 2.7 WAR and seventh in xFIP among rookies with at least 100 innings this season.
What makes Nova’s case particularly interesting is that before the 2009 season, the San Diego Padres selected him in the Major League phase of the Rule 5 Draft. Just days before the season began, Nova was tendered back to the Yankees after giving up eight runs in 8.2 innings of relief work during Cactus League play. The Rule 5 success stories that baseball fans most-often cite are the cases like Johan Santana, Joakim Soria and Josh Hamilton — where players went on to become valuable pieces for their new teams. But when do Rule 5 players become successes after being returned to the team that had once given up on them?
Fernando Vina (selected by the Mariners, from the Mets), John Wetteland (selected by the Tigers, from the Dodgers) and Cecil Cooper (selected by the Cardinals, from the Red Sox) are players who went on to good careers after being returned to their original clubs. You’ll notice that those players aren’t known for their exploits with any of those associated teams. According to Jim Callis, of Baseball America, no returned Rule 5 player since 1960 has made an All-Star appearance representing their original team. This makes sense considering that if a team is willing to give away a player for basically nothing, it’s unlikely that the organization thinks highly enough of him to give him a shot if he’s returned. It’s not uncommon for the original team to pass on the opportunity to take the player back, as was the case for Shane Victorino and the Dodgers.
Back in 2008, the Yankees had themselves a bit of a roster squeeze and actually had three other unprotected players (Reegie Corona, Zach Kroenke and Jason Jones) who teams thought could be useful big-leaguers. Baseball America at the time said of Nova, “Tall 21-year-old has flashed three plus pitches at times but lacks consistency and deception; hit hard in FSL.” After the Padres decided he wasn’t worth a roster spot, Nova was uninspiring in AAA for the Yankees. He posted a 4.08 FIP in just 67 innings in 2009 — and it’s possible the Yankees didn’t think of Nova as anything more than depth at that point.
The following year, Nova returned to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and his strikeout rate jumped from 5.78 K/9 to 7.14 K/9; his walk rate dropped from 3.76 BB/9 to 2.89 BB/9; and he was touching 97 mph on the radar gun. By mid-season, fans and scouts started noticing that Nova might have turned the corner. On Aug. 23 he made his big-league debut and contributed 0.5 WAR in 42 innings for New York.
Having liked what the team saw in 2010, the Yankees gave Nova a shot to win a spot in the rotation this year. Nova continued to impress in March and the Yankees decided he was one of the team’s better starting options. Despite being crowded out and sent down in July, Nova showed the Padres that perhaps management was too quick to give up on him. By my count — among players over the past 15 years who played for the organization to which they were returned to following a Rule 5 selection (with no in-between transactions) — only Randy Wells produced a single-season WAR total greater than Nova’s season total. Wells put together back-to-back seasons of 3.0 and 3.2 WAR a year after not sticking with the Blue Jays.
Taking a look at similarity scores, we see a spectrum of possible outcomes for Nova’s career. We see guys like Kirk Rueter and Steve Blass, who were able to carve out meaningful careers. We also see guys like Tommy Greene and William Van Landingham, who showed flashes of potential but were unable to sustain long careers. Finally we see two guys — Wade Davis and Anibal Sanchez who are still developing their career arcs.
Given the instability that the Yankees rotation showed this year, and the questions it has going into this off-season, it’d be surprising if Nova wasn’t one of the team’s top five starters in 2012. If Nova can build off of his inspiring rookie season and maintain a level of decent productivity with the Yankees, he’ll be taking one of the rarest career paths in baseball history.