According to Wikipedia (this is a fantastic way to begin any piece of writing, by the way), the collapse of a star can cause “a violent expulsion of the star resulting in a supernova, or the release of gravitational potential energy may be insufficient and the star may collapse into a black hole.” Unfortunately for the New York Yankees, Ivan Nova has been more of a black hole than a supernova this year. He had star potential, but the potential was insufficient to make Nova into a superNova, and as a result, his season collapsed into what some may call a black hole of no return (you like that? I’m pretty proud of it myself).
In all seriousness, Nova has had a pretty horrendous season. After an impressive rookie debut, Nova really has collapsed this year. With an ERA close to 5 and a WHIP north of 1.45, Nova is on the verge of missing the playoff rotation after seeming like a shoe-in with all of the injuries to the Yankees staff. In this edition of Sabermetric Outlook, I take a look at Ivan Nova’s prospects for the future, and whether his season has any redeeming factors that aren’t apparent at first glance.
If you haven’t done so already, I’d encourage you to first check out the primer that I wrote for this series, which outlines some of the most important statistics that I’ll employ in this post and others. If you’re unfamiliar with sabermetrics, or you’re not sure about a particular statistic I mention, check out that post (if you still don’t understand, please leave a comment below or email me and I’d be happy to help).
Previous players:Mark Teixeira Robinson Cano Derek Jeter Alex Rodriguez Russell Martin Nick Swisher Curtis Granderson CC Sabathia Hiroki Kuroda Phil Hughes
Like always, let’s start with the sabermetric basics for Nova.
First of all, take a look at Nova’s strikeout rate this year compared to last. That is a remarkable jump, and we should be celebrating the fact that he has been able to increase his strikeouts so drastically while actually lowering his walk rate. Of course, beyond the strikeouts and walks, pretty much every other part of Nova’s game has gotten worse, and by a lot. He’s forcing fewer ground balls, a very bad sign for a guy who used to live by the ground ball. Related to that is Nova’s home run rate, which is 8th worst in baseball (2nd? Phil Hughes, of course). However, it’s not entirely related, as the main reason for the elevated home run rate is a ridiculous 15.9% HR/FB, which is 4th worst in the game.
Apart from the home runs, the other stat that jumps out above is Nova’s BABIP, which, like his HR/FB, is 4th worst in the Bigs at .331. A lot of home runs and high BABIP means one thing: Nova is getting hit, and he’s getting hit HARD. Like, really hard. Diamond hard. Dwayne Johnson hard (get it? The Rock? Never mind). Batters aren’t making contact as much as they used to, and Nova isn’t walking batters any more, but when they make contact, they really make contact.
Luckily for Nova, both of these metrics are generally unsustainable in the long term. BABIPs tend to regress to the league average, as do HR/FB rates. On the other hand, part of the reason that this happens is because pitchers that have extremely high marks in these two categories tend to be weeded out quickly. If I pitched in the major leagues, I’m positive that my BABIP would by sky-high, as would by HR/FB rate. But I wouldn’t make it to the majors. Generally, pitchers that are good enough to pitch in the bigs have BABIPs and HR/FB rates that regress to league average over a large enough sample size.
So for Nova, the question we have to ask is this: is the BABIP and HR/FB% sustainable? In other words, what is Nova doing to cause these extreme marks, and is it something he can easily fix? Because if he can’t fix it, then he won’t last much longer on the Yankees, let alone the major leagues.
For the most part, Nova’s plate discipline numbers are fairly similar to last year, except for the fact that hitters are making less contact, which explains the increase in strikeouts. However, there’s one metric that is a cause for concern for Nova, and that’s his first-pitch strike percentage. Last year and the year before, it was almost exactly 60%, but this year it’s down to 57.8%. That may not seem like a big drop, but that’s basically an extra 20 hitters on the season that Nova is starting out with a ball. League-wide, batters have an OPS over 200 points higher when they start with a 1-0 count versus an 0-1 count – it’s basically the difference between facing Jemile Weeks (.220 BA with 2 HRs) and Andre Ethier (.288, 17). Even if it’s only 20 batters, that’s a huge difference, and not negligible by any means.
Looking at Nova’s pitch f/x numbers, we can see a major difference in how Nova is approaching batters when he’s behind in the count. Whereas last year, he would throw a fastball over 80% of the time when he was behind on batters, this year he’s throwing it about 70% of the time, and instead using the curveball and slider about 26% of the time in these situations (versus only about 11% last year). This is strange because you would think Nova would want to throw a fastball to get back ahead in the count. However, it’s actually encouraging to see that he’s not giving in and is more willing to use his curveball and slider – strong pitches for him – even in hitters’ counts.
Really, when all is said and done, Nova’s fastball has been his downfall this year. Last year, batter hit .296 with a .430 slugging percentage against his fastball, but this year, it’s all the way up to .365 and .615 respectively. He’s clearly tried to adjust by throwing more curveballs and sliders, but it hasn’t been enough.
Nova’s fastball actually has a lot more vertical movement this year – that is, it’s “rising” more, and therefore dropping less. This may be part of the reason for Nova’s struggles. A rising fastball is good for strikeouts, but it’s bad for ground balls, as the results have shown, and it may cause harder contact. I don’t know if studies have been done linking fastball rise to home run rate or BABIP (I’m sure they have), but I would guess that there’s a positive correlation.
So what’s the solution? I don’t really know, because I don’t know if this change in Nova’s fastball is intentional or not. It seems that he’s trying to adjust by throwing more offspeed pitches, which is good (though, as a side note, he should stop throwing the changeup until he can improve it, as batters have hit five home runs off the changeup in just 20 at bats), but if he wants to have success, something needs to change with the fastball. It may be a command (not control, which is basically measured by walk rate) issue, but I’ve run out of room to examine that possibility here.
All in all, Nova’s performance this season has been very discouraging, but it could be much worse. I would much rather see an improvement in strikeouts and walks and a decline in balls in play and home runs than vice versa. BABIP and HR/FB% are much easier to fix, and much more subject to random variation and regression to the mean. While Nova’s issues have certainly been his fault, and he should receive blame for them, we shouldn’t necessarily expect them to continue. He needs to figure out how to keep the ball on the ground without sacrificing the vast improvement in strikeouts he’s experienced this year. He’s young and raw enough that this is possible, but he’ll also need maturity to make these adjustments to failure.
All stats taken from FanGraphs.com and BrooksBaseball.net.