Is It Time To Worry About Ivan Nova?


Source: Keith Allison

Ivan Nova’s Pirate career began like this:

And then his season ended like this:

Which led to him getting an extension like this:

After asking for an extension more like this:


Ivan Nova was traded to the Pirates during the 2016 MLB trade deadline. Fans weren’t too excited, but they weren’t devastated either. The Pirates had lost a measly PTBNL for a guy that was better than Ryan Vogelsong. Awesome!

After being traded to the Pirates, Nova turned the unexcited fans into fans that wanted to see Ivan Nova in a Pirate jersey for a long, long time. At first nobody really expected the Pirates to sign Nova, after all, they had failed to resign JA Happ in the previous offseason.

And then reports came out that Nova wanted $70 million spread out over 5 years. Not many people thought that would be a good deal for the Pirates. People were prepared to see yet another Searage reclamation project go to waste.

But then, the unthinkable happened. The Pirates got their guy. No, not for $70 million, but for $26 million over 3 years, an AAV of $8.5 million. A good deal for the Pirates, especially considering Edinson Volquez received a $22 million 2 year deal, Bartolo Colon signed a $12 million 1 year deal, and Rich Hill signed a $48 million 3 year deal during the same offseason. Baseball players make an obscene amount of money. Starting pitchers are no exception.

In the first year of his new contract, he posted a 1.50 ERA in April. Pirates fans spent the entire offseason arguing about if Gerrit Cole or Jameson Taillon was this staffs real ace, and the whole time it was Ivan Nova! Well, not so fast. Since April, Ivan Nova has a 4.39 ERA. Add that all up, and you end up with a 3.66 ERA for the year. By all means, that is well worth the $8.5 million he is being paid. But he is trending downwards. If he keeps trending downwards, this contract may ultimately end up being a bad one for the Buccos.

During Nova’s time with the Yankees last year, he had a 4.90 ERA and a 5.10 FIP. He had a major home run problem that inflated his numbers, which is not uncommon for Yankees pitchers. His xFIP, which corrects out of line HR rates, was a much more respectable 4.08.

Moving out of the AL East and Yankee Stadium into the NL Central and PNC Park is a good fix for pitchers just on its own. Nova went from giving up over 1 home run per start with the Yankees to around 1 home run every 3 starts with the Pirates. The home run problem had been solved.

But now another thing came up. Ivan Nova became a control artist. Nova wasn’t exactly wild with the Yankees. He had a 5.9 BB% with the Yankees which was better than league average. But that become an absurd 1.1 BB% with the Pirates. The improvements don’t stop there. Along with the reduced walk rate came an increase in his strikeout rate. Nova was now striking out batters 19.8% of the time, his highest mark since 2012. That 4.90 ERA with the Yankees became a 3.06 ERA with the Pirates. And don’t forget, Nova is a groundballer. The Pirates love their groundball pitchers.

Add up all of these factors and you have a pitcher that the Pirates felt was worth resigning.

Despite the huge boost in his numbers, the Pirates, specifically Ray Searage, apparently made no mechanical adjustments to Ivan Nova. In an article by USA Today, Nova said “It was huge,” when asked of Searage’s impact on his performance. “Huge. We didn’t do a lot of work mechanically or stuff like that, but the way that he communicates with you, the way that he explains something to you, it gives you the confidence to go out there and perform at a high level.”

Being confident is not something new for Nova. In 2012, Ivan Nova said “If you ask me who the best pitcher in the world is, I’d say me.”

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He clearly has confidence in himself. But pitching takes more than just confidence in yourself. You need to be confident in your coaches, your catcher, your defense, and your stuff. When Nova began having confidence in the people around him, that’s when he really started to shine.

So what do the numbers say about Nova’s newfound confidence? With the Yankees, Nova had thrown a first pitch strike 58.4% of the time. With the Pirates, that became 66.9% of the time. Nova had began attacking hitters right from the start. As I mentioned a month and a half ago, getting ahead early in the count is crucial. Those first pitch strikes obviously led to him getting ahead in the count 0-1 instead of falling behind 1-0. Hitters (on average, not just against Nova) have a .630 OPS when falling behind 0-1. When they manage to get ahead 1-0, that catapults to a .860 OPS.  So clearly, getting ahead early is very important (ya hear that, Glasnow?).

His aggressiveness didn’t stop there. When Nova was with the Yankees, he threw in the strike zone 42.5% of the time. That number jumped to 49.9% of the time when he was with the Pirates. That jump might not seem drastic, but it certainly was. Throwing in the zone 42.5% of the time last year was good for 126th most often out of pitchers with at least 100 IP whereas throwing in the zone 49.9% of the time would have been the 27th most often.

Clearly being aggressive, AKA throwing in the zone more often, was a major strategy for Nova. After all, you don’t walk 3 batters over 64.2 innings by getting lucky.

Nova was getting first pitch strikes, he was attacking the zone, he was using his changeup more against lefties and he was throwing his curve more against righties. Everything was going well. But now, in 2017, things aren’t going as well. Now that I’ve briefly gone over what made Nova better in 2016, what has made him worse in 2017?

His first pitch strike percentage has gone from 66.9% to 64.4%. That is a decrease but not an alarming one. Opposing hitters hit .265 against Nova last year and are hitting .269 against him this year. Again, that isn’t very alarming. His strikeout rate his down and his walk rate is up. Ah! That’s alarming!

Strikeouts are the best type of outs in baseball. A ball that doesn’t touch a bat can’t fall in for a hit. Hits are bad, therefore strikeouts are good. With the Pirates last season, Nova had a 19.8 K%. This year that has fallen to 15.3%. Strikeout rates are great indicators of whether a not a pitcher will be successful or not, but strikeout rate minus walk rate is even better. Last season Nova had a 18.6 K-BB% with the Pirates. That would be ranked 20th best for starters with 100+ innings last year. This year, he has a 12.0 K-BB%. That would be ranked 78th best for starters with 60+ innings this year.

Obviously, that is not ideal. The below image might be the reason why.



The numbers represent differences between his time last year as a Pirate and this year. Right off the bat you can see he is throwing his fourseam fastball more while throwing his sinker and curveball less.

His sinker is still his most thrown pitch. But he is throwing it 45.0% of the time this year compared to 52.9% of the time last year. Nova’s sinker is a great pitch, and it should be thrown a lot. Hitters have a 55.7 GB% against his sinker while they have just a 36.5 GB% against his fourseamer. His sinker is pretty damn good. His fourseamer isn’t pretty damn good. Throwing his sinker more often should only do good things for him.

But the big problem is his reduced use of his curveball. His curveball was a strikeout machine in 2016, and it has been one in 2017. The problem is the machine has been pushed to the side. If he wants to see his strikeout rate return, he’ll need to bring back his curveball.

The problem with throwing his curveball less often is this: he throws his fastball more. There are advantages and disadvantages to throwing a fastball 70% of the time like Nova does. However, it seems like there are more advantages to throwing it around 60% so he can throw his curve around 30% of the time. Less contact, more strikeouts, even if that means less 8 inning games. It’s very early in his Pirate career, but Kontos may be what the Pirates need to shorten the game.

In the end, I really don’t know if Nova does have a problem. If you think there is a problem with Nova, leave a comment saying what you think Nova should attempt to do to fix it. Maybe 2016 was just him overperforming. After all, a 1.1 BB% didn’t seem sustainable and his BB% this year is still the 2nd best in the league. The strikeouts need to return in order for him to return to being the pitcher he was in 2016. But there’s a chance they don’t. Fortunately for the Pirates, that’s already priced into his contract. People came into 2017 with high expectations for Nova. He may not be the teams ace, but there are 5 spots in a rotation, and he still looks like a great guy to have in ours.


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