Back in 2011, 24-year-old rookie Ivan Nova burst onto the scene, putting up an eye-popping 16-4 record for the New York Yankees and finishing fourth in the Rookie of the Year balloting. Even for those with cold, black, jaded, hearts like myself who try to ignore pitcher win/loss records entirely, that’s a mark that’s difficult to miss, and it of course retains a great deal of value when you’re specifically talking about fantasy baseball. Nova’s peripherals didn’t quite back up that level of success, since he struck out only 98 in 165.1 innings to go with a 4.01 FIP, but for a guy who didn’t even have a guaranteed roster spot with the team entering spring training, it was a pretty fantastic debut.
Last year, he still won 12 games and improved both his strikeout & walk numbers, but a massive jump in his home run rate inflated both his ERA and his FIP, the point where the Yankees left him off the postseason roster. This year, Nova fought off David Phelps to keep his spot, but made it through just four short & uneven starts before a right triceps injury knocked him out for more than a month. After returning in May, he made two relief appearances before being optioned to Triple-A, though he’s since returned to make four pretty impressive appearances.
Nova appears to have regained his spot in the Yankees rotation and has looked good doing it, so we have ask: what Nova are we seeing here?
What’s interesting is that Nova wasn’t recalled by the Yankees in June because he had been pounding down the door at Triple-A; it’s because a rainout and subsequent doubleheader opened up a spot. Even a nice debut sent him back to long relief, and it was only Hiroki Kuroda‘s hip injury that got him back into the rotation. Of course, that July 5 start resulted in his first career complete game, a masterpiece against Baltimore in which he struck out 11. After a solid outing against the Royals on Wednesday, Nova has now thrown 29.1 innings with a 28/6 K/BB and eight earned runs allowed in four games (three starts) since coming back up.
That’s a small sample size, to be sure, but it’s also coming from a pitcher with some amount of recent success. So what’s changed? According to Nova, as told to ESPN New York, it’s a difference in pitch selection.
Nova has had three straight strong outings thanks in part to a deceptive two-seam fastball that he recently added to his arsenal.
Fortunately for us, we can test such things, and in this case it appears to be accurate:
Nova threw his sinking two-seamer (in red on this chart) just 4.9% of the time last year, and so far this year that’s up to 18.9% — which would help explain how he got a season-hit 12 grounders against Kansas City. He’s also swapped out a slider (green, down from 12.1% to 3.5%) in exchange for greater usage of his curve (purple, up from 28.8% to 33.3%), while keeping his little-used change-up at about the same rate.
If you look at the numbers, it makes sense. Since being recalled in June, Nova has thrown his sinking two-seamer 104 times, and he’s allowed a mere three base hits (and a walk). He’s thrown his four-seamer only 17 more times, but has allowed seven more hits (including a homer), two additional walks, and a hit batter. It appears he’s also added some velocity, averaging 93.5 miles per hour on his fastball.
Again, small samples sizes abound here, but I always like it when we can find some real reason for change behind nice stats, and this conscious decision to use his two-seamer more appears to be just that. Nova was probably never as good as that 16-4 record made him out to be, but as a relatively freely available choice (owned in 21% of Yahoo! leagues and 22% of ESPN leagues) at the moment, you could do a lot worse for a few starts to see if his changes are for real. After all, Nova is still only 26 and in his third full season, so it’s not as if he’s beyond the age where lasting improvement can be reasonably expected.
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