11:34 am Aug. 7, 2012
For much of 2012, perhaps the greatest success story of the New York Yankees' season has been Ivan Nova.
Nova had surprised in 2011, putting up a gaudy 16-4 record and 3.70 E.R.A. But his strikeout rate was a pedestrian 5.3 per nine, suggesting a reliance on balls in play that would give his subsequent seasons far more variance and reliance on defense than is ideal.
But Nova discovered how to get hitters to swing and miss in 2012. After a six-inning, ten-strikeout performance on July 8, his E.R.A. was a strong 3.92. More important, his strikeout rate had ballooned to 8.2 per nine. With the groundball-heavy results on balls in play that helped him succeed in 2011 largely unchanged, the future looked far brighter for Nova than it had even a few months earlier.
But since then, Nova's had a very rocky month. Over his last five starts, culminating in Monday night's shelling by the Detroit Tigers, Nova has an E.R.A. of 8.36.
Is there reason for concern? Probably not.
Note first that Nova's strikeout rate has been pretty stable, even over those five starts. He's at 7.7 per nine during that span. Nor has his walk rate spiked, holding steady at around three per nine as it has been all season.
So what exactly is happening?
For one thing, he is allowing home runs. Six of his 23 home runs allowed this season have come in the past five starts. Over that time, Nova has flipped his ground ball rate with his fly ball rate. In his career, just over half of his balls in play have been grounders, and around 30 percent have been fly balls. In his past five starts, 48 percent have been fly balls, 31 percent grounders.
That's a problem. And it suggests that the diagnosis made by catcher Russell Martin following Monday night's game has a great deal of truth to it.
Martin said, "“His slider didn’t have much bite to it. Made a couple of mistakes with that pitch. Tried to get the curveball going too, but then it was a little bit inconsistent. You just really have to rely on your fastball. Against a good offensive team, it’s going to be a tough day, and that’s what happened."
Well, Nova's jump in strikeouts was a direct result of throwing more offspeed pitches in 2012. In 2011, he threw 62 percent fastballs; in 2012, that number has dropped to 54 percent. Throwing more sliders and curveballs made an enormous difference.
But if hitters can either crush those pitches when they come, or allow them to float harmlessly out of the strike zone, Nova becomes a far less effective pitcher. That he's still inducing the number of swings and misses suggests that he's hardly lost his ability to pitch. But if those sliders aren't sliding, more of them will end up in the air, and in the seats.
The Yankees don't have a ready-made solution to the Nova problem, nor should they be quick to dump a starting pitcher who made great strides in 2012 because of a brief slump. But if you want to know if Nova has turned it around, watch his curveballs and especially his sliders in his next start this weekend.