The Evolution of Ivan Nova

Back in July, Mike Petriello gave us a nice background on Ivan Nova, so I’ll spare you his biographical introduction. At the time, it was July and Nova had looked pretty solid in a handful of starts, but the dreaded small sample size kind of loomed. But since that time, he’s just continued to confound opponents and he appears to be emerging as one of the more shrewd waiver wire acquisitions of the 2013 season. What’s interesting is how different he has been this year versus his career.

First of all, it’s worth noting that before he went on the disabled list, Nova was pretty worthless in fantasy circles. He had a 5.16 ERA, allowing opponents to hit .333/.410/.411. He was, however striking out batters at a 24% clip and his BABIP allowed was over .430. Even for a ground-ball pitcher, that’s a bit extreme. After returning from the disabled list on June 23, Nova has posted a 2.23 ERA, holding opponents to a .231/293/.306 slash line and still striking batters out at a 23% rate. Was there anything that precipitated the new success?

Since returning from the disabled list, Nova has scrapped his slider, dialed back his four seam fastball and relied much more heavily on his sinker (what may be classified as a two seamer elsewhere, doesn’t matter) and his curveball:

The percentage change gets a little washed out in the scale, but that’s a five percent change in the four seam fastball, a six percent change in the sinker and about a five percent change in the curve. That’s not nothing. As a double negative, that’s something. If you prefer charts, here you go:

Before After
Fourseam 34.73% 29.93%
Sinker 23.78% 30.04%
Change 3.03% 3.14%
Slider 6.29% 0%
Curve 32.17% 36.88%

But going back a little more, after a disappointing 2012, scrapping the slider turns out to be just part of the reinvention of his repertoire. Here’s a comparison of his 2012 mix of pitches and his 2013 to date:


So in 2013, his curve has become his most used pitch and for the kind of pitcher that Nova is, it’s pretty unique. Nova isn’t some soft-tossing-location-reliant-rubber-arm. He averages 93.4 mph on his fastball, and has in fact averaged well over 94 in his last four starts. There’s no other starting pitcher in baseball that averages more than 93 miles per hour on their fastball and throws more than 25% curveballs. Nova throws more than 35% curveballs, which is the most in all of baseball. Why does this matter?

In 2013, Nova is generating an eye-popping 48% whiff per swing rate and an overall 18.5% whiff rate on his curve. Opponents are hitting just .154 with a .205 slugging percentage versus his curve. For a pitch he throws more than a third of the time, that has a big share of his success. And if you look at his plate discipline rates, everything is trending in the right direction:

Season Team O-Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% SwStr%
2010 Yankees 24.90% 66.30% 91.50% 83.60% 6.80%
2011 Yankees 28.20% 70.10% 92.80% 84.80% 6.60%
2012 Yankees 30.00% 63.20% 89.30% 79.50% 9.00%
2013 Yankees 33.70% 62.00% 87.20% 76.20% 10.50%

It’s not that Ivan Nova has necessarily remade himself, but it seems he’s mastered the art of pitching to one’s strength. His opponents aren’t altogether sure if a 94 mph fastball is coming or an 82 mph curve is coming and it’s seemingly turning him into a bonafide strikeout pitcher with pretty terrific peripherals to boot.

Somehow, he’s owned in just a little less than half of Yahoo leagues and 65% of ESPN leagues, which makes me terrified for America’s youth. If he’s there, grab him. In keepers it’s a no brainer (he’s just 26). Unless you’ve slipped into the “it’s that I don’t care about my fantasy team time of year,” Ivan Nova deserves a spot on your roster.

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Michael was born in Massachusetts and grew up in the Seattle area but had nothing to do with the Heathcliff Slocumb trade although Boston fans are welcome to thank him. You can find him on twitter at @michaelcbarr.

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i wonder what his pitch percentages would look like from year to year? i remember him throwing alot of sinkers his first year up and then seemingly throwing it less and less going forward.

the yankees seem to make their young pitchers get away from their strengths to be a different pitcher sometimes (hughes, joba as well).