Ivan Nova has seen his performance fluctuate quite a bit over his short career. 2011 was his first full season and he returned good results, with a 16-4 record and 3.70 ERA. But his peripherals were mediocre, including a 5.33 K/9 that made him hard to roster in fantasy leagues. Then came 2012 when he took big steps forward. He struck out over eight batters per nine (8.08 K/9) and kept his walk rate under control (2.96 BB/9). Which was good, except that he also allowed a ton of hits on balls in play (.331 BABIP) and an unusual number of home runs (16.6% HR/FB). That led to an unsightly 5.02 ERA.
He finally put it all together last season. He maintained the strong strikeout and walk rates, bowled plenty of ground balls (53.5%), and turned in an ERA of 3.10 with a 3.68 xFIP. Nova got out to a slow start on the season (more on that in a moment), so he only returned a little less than $3 of value over 139 innings. Aside from Yankees fans, fantasy owners are likely to undersell the soon to be 27-year-old, but he’s a solid option capable of supporting a fantasy rotation.
First and foremost, Nova is not somebody to confuse with more elite pitchers, nor does he possess much upside. He’s somebody who can produce average stats across all four starting pitcher categories, which is quite useful. Most pitchers who are used to fill out a fantasy rotation have specific strengths and weaknesses. Maybe they strikeout a lot of hitters but also issue too many walks. That would lead to a high WHIP and inconsistent ERA. Or maybe they’re just as solid as Nova, but they pitch for a terrible team and therefore have little chance of winning games (ahem, Jose Quintana). Assuming neutral luck, using someone like Nova can make it a lot easier to manage categories.
Nova sputtered out to a rough start in 2013. Three of his first four outings went poorly, at which point he landed on the disabled list with a strained triceps. He then suffered an oblique injury while rehabbing his arm. He made a pair of relief appearances in late May and then was demoted to Triple-A. He returned to more regular action in late June, which is when he began to pitch well. He did falter a bit in late August through mid-September, which coincides with a drop in velocity. It’s possible he was suffering from a minor injury or fatigue.
According to Brooks Baseball, Nova began phasing out his four-seam fastball in favor of a sinker. He split usage of both pitches over the season, but increasingly favored the sinker as the season progressed. That may be a good move as his primary fastball allowed a .357 BABIP in both 2012 and 2013. The pitch was the main culprit behind his rough 2012 season, and it’s quite possible that it’s a bit too hittable.
From the table above, not only does his sinker generate more ground balls than his fastball, but it also generates more whiffs. It would seem that the primary fastball is best used as a setup pitch to help his sinker and curve ball. Nova also mixes in the occasional change-up against left-handed hitters, but it does not appear that he is confident in the pitch.
After reviewing his pitch usage, Nova feels a bit incomplete as a pitcher. His four seam fastball has been poor over a fairly large sample, yet he has a good sinker and curve ball. A useful third pitch would be a weapon that improved all of his offerings and kept hitters guessing.
As for expectations, Nova has a rotation job all but guaranteed in New York. With health, he’ll get a shot at 200 innings next season. If he pitches to similar peripherals as last season, he should turn in around $8 of value. He will probably be available in many leagues for only a couple dollars, although I’m sure you can find plenty of Yankees fans with unreasonable expectations. Given his expected value and cost, it seems pretty obvious that Nova should be an early target for the back of your rotation. However, it’s still early in the offseason, we may find that savvy owners aren’t letting him slip as far as I expect.
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