Ivan Nova Regressing, Or Just Struggling?

Detroit, MI, USA; New York Yankees starting pitcher Ivan Nova pitches against the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park. Credit: Rick Osentoski-US PRESSWIRE

Ivan Nova is having trouble in 2012, as many felt he would, but is it for the reasons they predicted?

Ivan Nova's 2011 campaign was a surprise. He had thrown 42 innings the year prior, split between starting and relief, and posted an average ERA with below-average peripherals in the process. While he was just 24 years old heading into 2011, he wasn't a top pitching prospect, and had decent, not great, minor-league numbers on his résumé.

He won a spot in the Yankees' rotation, though, and started 28 games for the club in 2011, tossing 165 innings. These came with a 117 ERA+ and a fourth-place finish in the AL Rookie of the Year race; in part because of his 16-4 won-loss record, but also because he had been good.

How good was up for debate, though. He was well below-average in strikeout rate, and gave up over three walks per nine, resulting in a 1.7 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He induced grounders on over half of his balls in play, but wasn't an extreme grounder pitcher. He didn't strand an abnormally high rate of runners, either, with just 73 percent of them left on base. That might be misleading, though, because he put lots of runners on and stranded them at more standard rates: Nova owned a 116 split-adjusted OPS+ with the bases empty – meaning, Nova allowed an OPS 16 percent higher than average with no one on base – but saw his sOPS+ fall to 57 with runners in scoring position, and 70 with runners on in general.

It was too early in his career to know if this was just something he could do, or if there would be problems later on. His fielding-independent pitching (FIP) sat at 4.01 – worse than his ERA, but still plenty productive if he could stay on the mound for 30 starts – so even if he regressed a bit, it didn't look like the sting would be that painful.

Fast-forward to 2012, and Nova is having some issues. He hasn't kept the ball in the yard as he did last season, and is instead allowing 1.5 homers per nine innings, more than twice his 2011 rate. His strikeouts are way up, and his walks are down, but in addition to the increased homers, Nova also has given up a .337 batting average on balls in play.

He's still succeeding with damage control with runners in scoring position (76 sOPS+), but has been horrendous pitching with the bases empty, where opponents are hitting .310/.376/.572 with 16 of the 23 homers he's allowed. This all reads like Nova is experiencing command issues from the windup, causing him to hang pitches that he then has to crane his neck to watch leave the park.

It happens, even to pitchers with generally sound mechanics like Nova. His control has improved, and he's putting the ball in the strike zone, but he's not necessarily throwing quality strikes. (Fellow AL East hurler Jon Lester has had some of the same issues in 2012.) Most of the increase in strikes comes from Nova's curve, as it's seeing the second-highest rate of whiffs among all of his offerings after rating as below-average in that regard last year. Other than that, things have been problematic.

His slider and four-seamer aren't seeing significant dips in effectiveness as far as swings-and-misses and grounders go, but they are being launched into the stratosphere far more often. Brooks Baseball tracks homers per air ball (essentially, home runs divided by (fly balls + liners)), and his four-seamer has jumped from 5.3 percent to 7.3 percent. That's nothing compared to his slider, as that offering has climbed from 9.1 percent in 2011 to 22.2 percent in 2012. The worst of the group is his change-up, though. Nova threw just 115 of them last season, as it failed to induce swings-and-misses or grounders at useful levels. In 2012, he's tossed 60 change-ups, and the results have been far worse than just failing to miss bats: 44.4 percent of change-ups put in the air have resulted in homers, and about all the pitch does is get hit into the air. It's a relatively new pitch for Nova, but it's tough to throw more of them when you see results like that.

Combine being hit hard with the 50-point jump in BABIP, and Nova has likely been a combination of unlucky and out of sorts due to command problems. His FIP puts him at 4.53 – better than his ERA, but not good – and until he ends his struggles out of the wind-up, that won't change. When he can locate his stuff, he's a good pitcher, so don't give up on Nova just yet. But right now, inconsistency is what's keeping him from being an evolved version of last year's successful hurler, and until he can sort out his command, he won't find consistency.

PITCHf/x data courtesy of Brooks Baseball

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