It’s time to look beyond Ivan Nova’s smoke and mirrors act


New York Yankees starter Ivan Nova burst onto the scene in 2011, winning 16 games, helping the team reach the playoffs. Nova’s winning was not necessarily a surprise after winning 12 games with Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in 2010. But, Nova went on a surprising fifteen-game regular season win-streak which spanned 16 starts in 2011 and the first 4 of 2012. Unfortunately, the wins have clouded the reality behind the pitcher, especially where it concerns 2012.

Nova was dubbed by many as ‘a winner‘. Media and fans alike proclaimed, ‘He just goes out and gets wins.‘ Yes, Nova has a very impressive win/loss record. But, his win/loss record is a product of smoke and mirrors. His true performance value is that of a number four starter dating back to last season. Wins are the judging factor for TEAMS, not pitchers.

Nova’s 2011 season was certainly solid. I am not writing to dispute that, but I don’t feel like he should be painted as the second best pitcher on this team either. He recorded a 3.70 ERA in 165.1 innings last season and a 4.01 FIP. These are good, not great numbers.

Looking at Nova’s performance this season, June was his only good month when looking at both standard and advanced metrics. For the old-school ERA lovers out there here is his monthly ERA for 2012 and for statheads, his FIP per month.

Which one of these things is not like the other? So, he wasn’t as bad as he looked in two months, just about exactly as expected in one month and his ‘amazing’ June wasn’t exactly stellar upon looking deeper.

Would you like more evidence that he’s fortunate to be 10-5? Below is what opposing batters have done to Nova, again on a monthly basis.

Once more, the outlier is June, the only month in which he wasn’t pretty much pounded. If it wasn’t for his increased strikeout rate (8.05 k/9), his strand rate would be worse (74.7%). He does have a higher BABIP against this season (.327) versus last (.283) but it is not astronomical. Looks like regression to me.

Some of you may not be convinced because of the notion that Nova is ‘great‘ with runners on, especially when they are in scoring position. It is true, he has gotten results this season, but a part of it is based on luck depending on the situation. His BABIP against (which luck has at least a part to play) with no one on is .351 (high). Then with runners on it is .298 (average) and with RISP it is .257 (low). So, he has some luck problems with no one on, but it gets better as he has runners on base or with runners in scoring position.

The simple fact is Nova allows too many base runners. He owns a 1.44 WHIP this season and his career WHIP is 1.39. In many games during his streak, he was able to ‘shut down‘ the opposition by allowing only a few runs or even four and ‘found a way to win,‘ further clouding his true value on the field. In fact, during the twenty-game stretch he gave up four or more earned runs six times. This season he has allowed five or more earned runs seven times, plus another four earned run effort, in 21 starts.

His performance last night against the Baltimore Orioles magnified his issues. Nova was staked to a five-run lead after the Yankees batted in the bottom of the first inning. In the top of the second inning he proceeded to allow seven runs on seven hits including a grand slam off the bat of Chris Davis. The home run was Nova’s 21st allowed this season. He gave up only 13 in 2011. He ended the day with nine earned runs in five innings.

In the clubhouse Nova said he may have been bitten by some bad luck. When it was suggested that Nova seems to lose focus at times, Yankees manager Joe Girardi said “he better get it back.” This many shaky outings brushes aside luck and should force everyone to look at Nova’s real production on the mound, not the number of wins he’s had dropped in his lap.

Nova plays with fire, plain and simple, and he has gotten away with it for about 1.5 seasons now. Last night, should be a wake-up call for the Yankees, the media and Yankees fans alike; Ivan Nova is not the number two starter on this team and if he continues to walk the tightrope he does, he’ll be lucky to stick around as a number four starter in pinstripes. A pitcher can’t hide behind the smoke and mirrors forever.

All stats courtesy of FanGraphs.