Ivan Nova’s Injury a Big Blow To Limited Yankee Depth

You most likely heard over the weekend that Yankees righty Ivan Nova walked off the mound in the fifth inning of Saturday’s start in Tampa shaking his right arm, and now we know that he’s got a partially torn UCL in his elbow. While he’s yet to decide whether he’ll rehab or opt for surgery, this is the kind of thing that almost always, always ends in Tommy John surgery, and it seems more likely than not that we don’t see him again in pinstripes before mid-2015.

In and of itself, this is actually smaller news than it seems, if only because we all know by now that this is the year that elbows are popping at an alarming rate, with Nova — assuming he does choose surgery — becoming the 21st professional pitcher (including minor leaguers) to get a zipper this year alone. 14 of those are major leaguers. He is, depending on how you look at such things, only the fifth or sixth or seventh most accomplished of the afflicted. If you could make a starting rotation of 2014 Tommy John pitchers, he might not even be in it. (Why one would do such a thing is another question entirely. That rotation might still be better than Arizona’s, though.)

So this is really less about Nova than it is about what the Yankees will…  oh, hang on:


You can’t always know when a pitcher is going to blow out, and this isn’t to suggest that the Yankees did anything wrong here. (Nova didn’t show much of a decline in velocity and had missed time in each of the previous two years with less serious arm woes.) But when you look at that release point chart, the fact that his swinging strike rate was suddenly among the worst in baseball, and the fact that he was getting lit up regularly in his first few 2014 starts, it was clear something wasn’t right here.

Anyway, back to the Yankees, who now have to replace Nova in what is once again shaping up to be a ridiculously tight AL East. (As the Red Sox and Orioles take the field in this morning’s Patriots Day game in Boston, they’re tied with the Rays for last place, but that’s only one game behind the Blue Jays and two behind the Yankees. You’d think that one of these years this division would stop being ludicrous, but: nope.)

So what this injury means to the team and the pennant race depends largely on your perception of things. Nova was either:

** Arguably the No. 5 Yankee starter, and no team should complain too much about losing a No. 5 starter, or

** A surprisingly valuable starter, with a 3.7 RA9-WAR from 2013 that matched Doug Fister and Mike Minor and can’t be easily replaced.

The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, but leaning closer towards the latter; you could easily make the argument, if you wanted to, that Nova was a better pitcher last year than Matt Moore, another recent elbow case whose loss will affect the AL East. Despite a surprising demotion to Triple-A last May, Nova came back in the second half to become one of the AL’s more effective starters, thanks in part to a change in pitch selection that included leaning less on his four-seamer and slider to focus more on his curve and a sinking two-seamer.

Now, presumably, he’s gone, and the Yankees are left with a uniquely interesting rotation foursome and plenty of questions about who takes the ball every fifth day. Through three starts, Masahiro Tanaka has been fabulous. Through three starts, Michael Pineda has been better than anyone could have possibly hoped for. On the other side, through four starts, 39-year-old Hiroki Kuroda has been… okay, despite the fact that as the sport continues to strike out more than ever, he’s currently showing a career-worst 8.4 percent swinging-strike rate, helped in part by the fact that batters are suddenly no longer swinging at his out-of-the-zone stuff like they used to. And CC Sabathia, dealing with an even more marked velocity loss, has an identical swinging-strike rate as he did in 2013, despite a higher overall strikeout rate — and, to date, has allowed the most homers in the American League.

For now, they appear willing to go with Vidal Nuno, a 48th-round pick of the Indians in 2009 who was released by Cleveland in 2011, made two spot starts last year for the Yankees and made it through five scoreless against the Rays on Sunday — getting the start in part because both Tanaka and Pineda had pitched in a doubleheader on Wednesday. The soft-tossing lefty piled up some impressive K/BB numbers in the minors, but also pitched only 45 professional innings in 2013 thanks to a groin injury that ended his season in June.

At the start of camp, when no one had any idea what Pineda would be able to offer after two years on the sidelines, Nuno was part of a four-headed fifth starter competition with Pineda, David Phelps and Adam Warren. All four ended up making the team, though with David Robertson injured and Matt Daley & Cesar Cabral already DFA’d, the Yankees may be hesitant to shake up their bullpen more than it already has been — even with Dean Anna around. Whether it’s Nuno or Warren or Phelps — or, as some fans will probably chime in with, “or Cliff Lee or Jeff Samardzija in July!” — the Yankees may need to get by with what they have, because there’s not have much they have to turn to in the minors. Here’s the current group of starters for Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, and… that is certainly a list of names:

2014 AAA starts Age MLB IP MLB starts
Bruce Billings 4 28 7.0 0
Caleb Cotham 3 26
Brian Gordon 3 35 14.1 2
Chase Whitley 3 25
Alfredo Aceves 1 31 361.0 15
Chris Leroux 1 30 69.2 0
Graham Stoneburner 1 26

I’d be lying if I said I had any idea who Bruce Billings is — he was apparently a 30th-round pick by Colorado in 2007, later traded to Oakland for three months of Mark Ellis, then signed to a minor league deal by the Yankees in January — but his Wikipedia page notes that “He enjoys watching movies, drawing, listening to music and dancing,” so, now you know something about Bruce Billings, I guess, but only the most minimal something.

Cotham would be entertaining if only for the inevitable New York Post headlines, and Gordon, 36 in August, is a fascinating story just because of how long he’s been around. (He was a 7th-round pick of Arizona in 1997 — yes, before the Diamondbacks even played a game — as an outfielder, switching to pitching in 2007, and popped up briefly for three games in relief with Texas in 2008 and two starts with the Yankees in 2011, while going through seven organizations and two stints in Korea. He didn’t start at all last year, serving as Triple-A Sacramento’s closer.) Aceves, of course, is well known to Yankees fans, having spent the last six years, mainly as a reliever, split between both sides of the Boston/New York rivalry.

No matter how this turns out, it’s a blow for the Yankees, because while Nova was never that good, they don’t have any immediately better options, and they are in an AL East that looks to be a total battlefield once again. It’s difficult to see any of these teams pulling far enough away from the pack to get to 95 wins… or perhaps even 90, as this simplified version of our projected standings shows:

2014 To Date 2014 Proj. ROS 2014
Proj. Full
Team W L W L W L
Red Sox 9 10 77 66 86 76
Rays 9 10 75 68 84 78
Yankees 11 8 73 70 84 78
Blue Jays 10 9 73 70 83 79
Orioles 8 9 70 75 78 84

Imagine an AL East won by a mere 86 victories? Whether it happens or not is less relevant than as we stand here today, it’s absolutely believable that it could happen. That really just could not be tighter — it still includes Nova for the Yankees, so knock them back another bit — and it really goes to show just how important every game in this division is going to be. For Nova, it’s a huge blow in what’s been a career defined by brief flashes of brilliance in between inconsistency and injury. For the Yankees, already struggling with an old and infirm infield, it’s a setback they really didn’t need. Maybe Nuno or Phelps or whomever can step up to be a viable fifth starter, but it’s unlikely that they’ll be able to give as much as Nova would have, and comes at the cost of bullpen depth as well. In a division like this, every little thing — like, say, walkoff wins on silly throwing errors — matters so, so much. The loss of Nova, far from an ace as he was, matters too.

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Mike Petriello lives in New York and writes about the Dodgers daily at Dodgers Digest, as well as contributing to ESPN Insider. He wrote two chapters in the 2014 Hardball Times Annual as well as building The Hardball Times and TechGraphs, and was an editorial producer at Sports on Earth. Find him at @mike_petriello.

33 Responses to “Ivan Nova’s Injury a Big Blow To Limited Yankee Depth”

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  1. Weston Taylor says:

    These here are good garphs. Nice article, Chad.

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  2. LONNIE says:

    This injury shows why signing younger players to extentions can be risky. Many were clamoring for the Yanks to sign Nova to a deal to buy out some FA years figuring another year like last year would make him costly. Good thing they held off on that.

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    • Ableem says:

      I haven’t seen any mentions anywhere of people wanting to sign Nova to an extension.

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      • vivalajeter says:

        Yeah, I think the Matt Moore injury shows the point better than this injury, since Moore actually did sign a contract that guarantees him over $20MM.

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  3. Luke in MN says:

    I’m totally confused about which teams are good and bad in the AL this year. Is it the year of parity?

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  4. Steinbeaner says:

    So, Yankees lose a pitcher and now they have less depth? Controversial stuff.

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    • Mike Petriello says:
      FanGraphs Supporting Member

      Does it have to be controversial to be informative?

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    • Max says:

      So the Yankees lose a pitcher and it is time to examine their depth. Informative stuff.

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    • The commenter "Steinbeaner" is stupid says:

      So, the stock market changed or some number of people died or some government did something bad that another government disagrees with? Clearly, this is not worthy of news. Only things not seen often are worthy of news (ex: when an orange looks like the face of Jesus).

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    • atoms says:

      I think you got it backwards. The article is saying the Yankees had poor pitching depth in the first place, so losing a starting pitcher like Nova really hurts them.

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  5. David says:

    Going to be an amazing race this year in the AL EAST is it not? Jays are looking good injury wise this year (x fingers and toes!) and hopefully will rise to the top as the season progresses.

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  6. Preston says:

    The Yankees made a conscious decision this year to go with the 12 best pitchers for the big league roster regardless of any other considerations. That meant that Phelps, Warren and Nuno, the teams best rotation depth, all left Tampa in the big league bullpen. Nuno got the call as the 5th starter almost by default because he was the most stretched out and had the most days off. Phelps and maybe even Warren might have been better options. It might have been smarter to go with a lesser 6th or 7th man in the bullpen in order to have a better 6th or 7th starter stretched and ready to go at AAA.

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  7. Neckbeard says:

    I was with you until the whole AL East being won by an 86-win team because that’s what the projections say the Red Sox are likely to win up with.

    That’s like saying its possible that only one batter will bat above .300 (or two or three, depending on rounding) this year because the ZiPS projections indicate as much.

    I know that this isn’t the point of the article, but it really is irritating when writers don’t point that out. Sorry. I otherwise really did like the piece, so…

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    • Mike Petriello says:
      FanGraphs Supporting Member

      “Whether it happens or not is less relevant than as we stand here today, it’s absolutely believable that it could happen. ”

      I did point that out, no?

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      • Baltar says:

        If you say so.

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      • Neckbeard says:

        It’s believable that ANY division *could* be won with 86 victories this year. That doesn’t make it notable or likely.

        It’s a copout line based on an incorrect premise. Say that it’s close. The projections say that it’s considerably closer than the other divisions. Say that there’s no clear favorite, hell, no smart bets at 2:1, much less even money. Mention the marginal-value-of-a-win curve and note that all five teams are at the peak.

        I hate sounding so antagonistic because, again, I really did like the rest of the article and generally have few to no complaints on FG articles in general.

        Anyway, thanks for the article.

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  8. AC of DC says:

    I think that AAA rotation was initially constructed around a theme — featuring, as it does, Alfredo Aceves, Bruce Billings, and Caleb Cotham — that then collapsed for their inability to acquire Dirk Dillon. The Yankees have so little concern for their minor league afiliates that they use them for games. Games, I tell you!

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  9. n0exit says:

    How could a team have immediately better options available for one of its starters? Can you provide an example of a team that has a starter available that is better than one of their current starters in the rotation? Why would a team do that, shouldn’t you start your best five pitchers? The impact of Nova’s loss is a question of degree, how much worse is the replacement compared to Nova. Probably not all that much, with Nuno, Warren and Phelps the yankees can probably get close to nova’s production and in the medium term replace the loss of bullpen arms with FA and minor leaguers such as Claiborne, Montgomory, Ramiraz, Betances and possibly Hanrahan et AL. The Yankees don’t have a great position prospect and Baneulos is still a while away but if there is one thing their farm can produce it is relief pitchers.

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    • emdash says:

      The Diamondbacks have Archie Bradley, for one example.

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      • n0exit says:

        Firstly its arguable that Bradley would be immediately better than the five scrubs the Diamondback’s have, he does have serious control ptoblems and secondly I probably should have qualified it by saying any half decent team.

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  10. Chad says:

    Glad someone appreciates my work.

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  11. james wilson says:

    The Crankees are on the verge of being really bad. They are going to have to pick up some expensive talent just to stay bad. Poor starting pitching will eventually crush the morale even of a better team than that. AL East is wide open, except in the Bronx. They may benefit from a year like Boston had in ’12.

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  12. Evan3457 says:

    The Yankees’ starting pitching depth includes David Phelps, and possibly Adam Warren as well, because, if need be, they can promote Montgomery or Burawa (when healthy) to supplement the pen and free up one of them for the rotation.

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  13. Paul G. says:

    It is unfortunate when a useful starting pitcher gets injured. Granted.

    However, in this case Nova is an erratic player, seemingly swinging from all-star caliber to scrub and back again at random. If you had to choose the Yankees starter to get hurt, he’d probably be the choice. And the Yankees have three starters in the bullpen. None of them is as good as Nova when he’s really good but at least one of them should suffice as a fifth starter. If this is the worst thing that happens to the Yankees this year they could probably live with that. Not sure they win the division now, but I wasn’t sure if they would win it before either.

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  14. LONNIE says:

    Paging Andy Pettitte!!

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