Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: the Pirates picked up a former Yankee and he’s excelling with them. It’s only four starts so let’s not get too crazy, but I think a lot of us were eager to see what – if anything – Ivan Nova would do with Pittsburgh. Not only was he going to be under the tutelage of Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage, but he’d also be going from Yankee Stadium to PNC Park for his home games, a colossal shift for a pitcher with a 1.3 HR/9 rate since 2012 including a horrific 1.8 this year with the Yankees.
On the heels of a complete game against Houston, Nova has a 3.20 ERA and 1.11 WHIP with Pittsburgh in 25.3 innings. His K/9 rate is actually down half a strikeout to 6.4, but his walks have tumbled so much that his strikeout percentage is the same 18% he had with the Yankees. Nova has generally been a better-than-average walk suppressor, but with Pittsburgh he’s on a new level. He’s currently walking just 1% of the batters he’s faced as a Pirate. And that ghastly home run rate is down to 0.7 HR/9. The only time he’s ever been lower was when he had a 0.6 in 2013, unsurprisingly his best season ever.
This isn’t Nova’s first good four or five start run this year. He closed May with a 3.41 ERA in five starts and he opened July with a 2.66 through four starts. So we shouldn’t just assume he’s gone to Pittsburgh and become the next J.A. Happ or something. He could just be having a nice run, something he’s done many times before. The sharp drops in homers and walks have me intrigued, though. Let’s see if there are discernable differences early on. Obviously, league and park change alone will account for some improvement, so we’re looking beyond that to his approach against righties and lefties.
When Happ went to Pittsburgh last year, he amplified his fastball usage from 64% to 73%, but Nova has gone the other way. He has dropped from 66% to 56% fastball usage, most of that going toward his curveball against righties and changeup against lefties – a pitch that has been virtually ignored since 2010 (but maybe for good reason?). He threw 42 innings that year, his MLB debut, and the change was used 11% of the time. It hasn’t eclipsed 5% usage in any season since, but now it’s up eight percentage points to 10% with the Pirates.
More on the changeup in moment, let’s get back to the fastball. The results are much better, too. His heater allowed a .906 OPS in 298 PA with the Yankees, along with a 9% strikeout rate and 6% walk rate. Through 65 PA with the Pirates, it’s at .710, 12%, and 2%, respectively. The biggest improvements have come against righties and it seems that less really is more with the fastball.
Nova has thrown the fastball 60% of the time to righties, down from 72% with New York, and it’s all been shifted to his curveball. He’s essentially fastball-curveball against right-handers. He seems to be getting on top of his curveball more and keeping it down in the zone. Nearly 87% of the curves he’s thrown been in the lower half of the zone yielding improved swinging strike (15% to 25%), called strike (25% to 41%), and chase (27% to 35%) rates. Right-handers have two singles and six strikeouts in the 11 PA ending on the curveball so far.
The pitch mix change is the only real difference against righties, but it is stark. What about lefties?
His OPS against them is down just 65 points from when he was with the Yankees, a marginal difference. The increased changeup usage has not been a positive, results-wise. Of course there were only seven plate appearances ending on a changeup with New York and there have only been 10 with Pittsburgh. Slicing up 50+ PA can be dangerous, doing so with 17 probably doesn’t tell us a lot.
The BABIP off the changeup was .167 in New York and it’s .400 with Pittsburgh so far. That alone probably explains the .286/.900 OPS split, but I will note that he’s leaving it “fat” more often, so he has a hand in the small sample destruction of the pitch.
While we haven’t seen a massive turnaround in results against lefties, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that they haven’t hit a homer in 50 PA so far. They hit about 2.5 homers per 50 PA off of him in New York. He his homer rate against lefties has really been steady. He allowed homers in 4.4% of his PA against lefties back in 2012 (367 PA), but then just 1 HR in 376 PA over 2013 and 2014 combined (though ’14 was just four starts) before a 3.8% rate last year and 4.8% this year prior to the trade.
If you’re trying to sum up what’s been different through four starts, it’s the fastball and curveball against righties. Both are performing well above average for Nova. Maybe the simple adjustment in mix combined with the move to the NL was enough to unlock something with Nova. Perhaps without the constant home run threat that he faced in New York and the rest of the AL East has given him more confidence to attack hitters in the zone.
His zone percentage is at 47% which would be a career-high over a full season (43% career mark, 46% peak in 2010 & 2014). Something else worth acknowledging is that he’s still relatively fresh off of Tommy John surgery (just over a year) and has always flashed legit talent. I wouldn’t be surprised if this ends up as another success story for Pittsburgh. The question then becomes will they re-sign him or let him walk as they did with Happ?