Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Ivan Nova's New Toy

There's no doubting that starting pitching is going to be the Yankees strong point this year, but that doesn't mean there aren't question marks. CC Sabathia is coming off of off-season elbow surgery, Hiroki Kuroda is coming off a career-high work load of 219.2 innings, and Andy Pettitte hasn't made 30+ starts since 2009. This means that the back-end starters are going to play an even bigger role in the team's success. This includes Ivan Nova, and even though he had a rough 2012 campaign and a rough start to this season, he still has a chance to settle in as a very solid back-of-the-rotation option.

It's kind of crazy how good Nova's 2011 was. He only struck out around five hitters per nine innings, but he only allowed 13 homers in 165.1 innings and he posted a 3.70 ERA (4.01 FIP) along with a 52.7% GB%. He just seemed to be good at keeping the ball down and on the ground. However, he got hit around a lot harder in 2012 as he yielded less grounders in exchange for more line drives and fly balls. He went on to pitch to a 5.02 ERA and allowed a very large 28 homers. You could tell that he just didn't seem to have the same command. He was still throwing strikes (his strikeout rate actually rose significantly and his walk rate lowered), but he was just getting hit around like crazy. He needs to find a balance between the two.

Over the weekend at Baseball Prospectus, Ben Lindbergh highlighted some of the new pitches that are being toyed with by various pitchers around the MLB to start the year. This stuff always fascinates me because I always love to see if the pitchers stick with the pitches, how much it affects the rest of their arsenal, and what results they get. One of the pitchers that Lindbergh highlighted was the Nova sinker. If we look at Brooks Baseball, we can see a new cluster starting to form a new pitch (note the gray).

The sinker is a nice add to Nova's repertoire because he already sports a straight fastball, solid breaking pitches (curve and slider), and a change with some fade (that he rarely throws). The sinker is good in this case for two reasons: 1) obviously Nova doesn't feel too comfortable throwing his change (has only thrown it 4% of the time) so this allows him to throw something with a little break away from left-handers and 2) it creates more deception than a straight 4-seamer. It didn't seem as though Nova was fooling anyone last year so maybe giving him this tool to use when he's behind in the count or just to work off of in general will help him keep more hitters off balance.

For the sake of comparison, Jason Hammel added a sinker last year as his main pitch and wound up having a very good season. I am not saying this will happen to Nova, but there is a chance that this could really help him keep the ball down and be a little more deceptive, two things he seemed to have a lot of trouble with last season. In his first (and only start) of 2013, 15% of pitches were coded as sinkers, but he did seem to use it more against lefties. In fact, he started off 43% of the lefties he faced with a first pitch sinker. These are really small samples obviously and the pitch is still new to him, so it's going to take some time to see where and when Nova will start to feel comfortable using the pitch, but it is something to look out for going forward, starting tonight.

Graphic and pitch info via Brooks Baseball


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