Nova better beat his projections

I was thinking about starting a series called, "Things that have to go well." The idea was to talk about certain Yankees players and how they have to stay healthy and play well if the Yankees are to compete in 2014. But you can probably see the obvious problem with such an idea. EVERYTHING has to go well. The same can be said for most teams. Last season everything went about as badly as it could. I will at least stick with the player who was going to lead off the series: Ivan Nova. Good golly, Ivan Nova needs to be a really good pitcher for the Yankees in 2014. If you are a Yankee fan, the thought of the Yankees' 2014 starting rotation (as it stands now) probably causes you to curl up in a fetal position. I have already documented how poorly CC Sabathia pitched in 2013. I knew that Hiroki Kuroda went from a Cy Young candidate at the end of July to a crashing finish. But I had no idea how bad that finish was. Kuroda lost seven of his last eight decisions. His WHIP in August was 1.421 and his WHIP in September was 1.500. That was Phil Hughes bad.

Then there is Nova and then what? Phelps? Nuno? Warren? Pineda? Who knows how the Tanaka thing is going to go and even if the Yankees win that lottery, how good will the guy really be? If not Tanaka, Garza and Jimenez are decent options. The point I am getting at is that Sabathia and Kuroda are another year older with miles and miles on their arms. After Nova, there are question marks.

Following Ivan Nova has been a bit like the Hit the Mole game. How good he was depended on what month it had been. I went through every month that Ivan Nova has pitched for the Yankees and I counted seven months that were good or better, ten months that were bad and two months that were decent.

He finished the 2011 season looking like an ace. He gave up extra base hits in 2012 like Bosch dispensed gummies (too soon?). Nova started poorly in 2013, then had very good and encouraging months in July and August and plummeted a bit again in September..

His career has been enough to drive you crazy. Nova had a shoulder flare up in 2012 and his elbow was sore at times in 2013. And through it all, there are the tantalizing moments where he just looks like a guy who can be an ace. When Ivan Nova is good, he is very good.

You can chalk up a lot of Nova's ups and downs with inexperience and age. But he is 27 years old now and heading into his fourth full season. If he does not figure it out soon, will he ever?

I love all the new data we have now. But one thing confuses me. We have end figures. Ivan Nova pitched to an excellent 3.10 ERA with a FIP of 3.47 in 2013. His WHIP was the best of his career and his homers per nine innings and per fly ball came way down after his tough 2012. His RA9-WAR was an excellent 3.7 compared to his number of total innings.

My question is this: Are the end numbers the only thing we need to focus on and forget the roller coaster ride he took us through to get there? Is it too much to ask for solid performance through an entire season?

The heading of this post intimates about the projections for Nova. Let's take a look at them. I will warn you in advance that they are not necessarily encouraging. If you understand projections, that pessimistic view is understandable. Those who specialize in projections throw all the historical data into this computer and see what comes out. Here are three:

  • Steamer: 189 IP, 7.18 K/9, 2.93 BB/9, 0.77 HR/9, 69.1% LOB, 4.01 ERA, 3.70 FIP
  • Oliver:  169 IP, 6.99 K/9, 2.72 BB/9, 1.01 HR/9, 72.6% LOB, 3.95 ERA, 4.06 FIP
  • ZiPS:   165 IP, 6.76 K/9, 2.89 BB/9, 0.87 HR/9, N/A LOB, 3.98 ERA, 4.19 FIP

Those are not terrible projections. The projected American League ERA for 2014 is 4.04, so Nova would project just a fraction over league average. If the Yankees have a great offense, that might be good enough. If the offense proves disappointing, those numbers are not good enough.

Steamer is the most optimistic about innings pitched, strikeout rate, home runs allowed and FIP. The left on base projection is way below Nova's career average and that is somewhat understandable since Nova has historically been better than average limiting damage with men on base.

Oliver and ZiPS are both pessimistic on innings pitched, strikeout and walk rates and FIP and both are higher on the home run percentage.

For the Yankees to make a run in 2014, Ivan Nova has to beat those projections. The rotation simply is not strong enough for him not to be better.

Although 2013 was his typical roller coaster ride, there are numbers to be optimistic about. Much was made about Nova developing his two-seam fastball to a higher level and getting more ground balls. Realistically, his ground ball rate simply returned to its 2010 and 2011 levels.

The good news is that Nova ditched his slider after his short stint in the minors (and the doghouse) and went instead with a sharp biting curve. Except for a possible problem of tipping his pitches, the curve was a great pitch for him. He threw the curve over 35% of the time and his scores on that pitch were positive. Nova also cut down on his change up, but when he did throw the change, it was a positive pitch for him as well.

Whether he increased his ground ball percentage or got back to his former levels, ground balls for a Yankee pitcher are great because they cannot go over the fence. 55% of his balls in play were grounders. The Yankees lost Cano's defense at second, so that will hurt Nova and whether Jeter or Ryan get the most innings at short will make a difference as well.

For me, the two-seam fastball is the most exciting development. If you look at Nova's heat maps for the four-seam fastball, there are simply too many in the middle of the strike zone. But look at what he did with the two-seam in 2013:

nova curve leftiesnova ft right

Nova was able to throw that pitch out of the danger zone by throwing it away to left-handed batters, causing them to roll it over and inside to right-handed batters, busting it in on their fists.

Two other things are encouraging. First, Nova had his best year at enticing batters to swing at pitches out of the strike zone. His 33.1% rate of doing so was much better than where he was two years ago and that stat has improved every season. Secondly, Nova also had his highest swing and miss rate. Those two things are a great combination.

Ivan Nova has tickled us several times over the last three years about the kind of pitcher he is capable of being. The question is whether he can become that guy over the course of a season and gain some consistency. His projections do not predict such an outcome. The ability is there. He has better strategies of how to get hitters out. Ivan Nova can fly above those projections. And boy, the Yankees will really need that to happen.