When Ivan Nova was traded to the Pirates just ahead of the trade deadline for two players to be named later, most people marveled at Yankees GM Brian Cashman’s ability to move the struggling starter for actual human beings. But, as they say, the joke’s on those people who laughed at Nova because since going to Pittsburgh, Nova has amassed a 5-0 record and a 2.41 ERA, with 43 strikeouts and only three walks, in eight starts.
So how is he doing this and why didn’t he do this with the Yankees? There are a few factors at play.
Moving from the AL East to the NL Central
There’s something to be said about moving from a division like the American League East, which features tougher pitcher’s ballparks, to a division like the National League Central, which is not as tough on hurlers.
PNC Park ranks 25th out of 30 stadiums in home runs. Yankee Stadium leads the majors and averages 1.430 a game, while PNC averages .806 a game. That’s quite a swing, no pun intended, and it helps a pitcher like Nova immensely.
No longer nibbling
Back on August 31, Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs wrote about Nova’s performance thus far in Pittsburgh and discovered a slight change in his approach, but nothing that makes this turnaround so obvious.
As with Happ, the Pirates haven’t had to do anything drastic. Nova’s repertoire looks mostly the same. Nova’s delivery looks mostly the same. Ray Searage himself has said that Nova’s been easy to work with because there’s just not much to do. If the Pirates have done anything, it’s just encourage Nova to pitch with more confidence.
With Nova it seems like a confidence issue, which was evident while he was in New York. Plus, as was already stated above, when you’re pitching in a home ballpark that allows so many home runs, it’s hard to pitch the way you want when you have Nova’s tendency to occasionally lose the plate and allow fly balls.
The differences in Nova’s number since the trade
When you look at Nova’s numbers pre- and post-trade, the contrast is astounding. In 21 games with the Yankees—15 starts—Nova pitched to a 4.90 ERA (5.07 FIP), and his rates were as follows: K/9 6.9, BB/9 2.3, and HR/9 1.8. In eight games with Pittsburgh—eight starts—Nova has the 2.41 ERA (2.74 FIP), and his rates are: K/9 7.4, BB/9 0.5 and HR/9 0.7.
In five games with the Yankees in July, Nova walked nine batters. In five games with Pittsburgh in August, he walked one. In his last two months with the Yankees, Nova surrendered 13 home runs—seven in June and six in July. With the Pirates, Nova has given up five in August and September combined, thus far.
As for the pitches he’s throwing. There is a difference between his pitches with the Yankees and his pitches with Pittsburgh. He seems to have found more confidence in his sinker, and according to Brooks Baseball he’s throwing it at the same levels he started the season (60 percent). The difference is that Nova was a reliever in April. He was put into the Yankees’ starting rotation in May, and the sinker dropped off after. At the time the trade occurred, Nova was throwing his sinker only 38 percent of the time.
Along with finding confidence in his sinker, Nova seems to have abandoned his slider again. He didn’t throw any in May and he hasn’t thrown it at all in September. However, the breaking pitch he’s still using, the curveball, has changed to become a bit more slider-ish. Nova is throwing it a little harder (up 1.5mph from April to September) and is getting less movement, especially horizontally. It’s tighter all-around.
Nova hasn’t been perfect with Pittsburgh. He still has the propensity to throw a lot of pitches from time to time, but it hasn’t been as bad as it was in New York. He threw a complete game on September 8 against the Reds and threw only 94 pitches—67 of them for strikes. Then during his next start, he threw 92 pitches in six innings on September 13 against the Phillies. But, he also recorded a season-high 11 strikeouts during that start against Philly—he had only four against the Reds.
This move was a good one for Pittsburgh, who has benefited from a good performance by a guy who wasn’t exactly expected to do much.
(This piece was written before Nova’s start on 9/18 against the Reds. He got knocked around for five runs, four earned, in only three innings. It was his first loss since going to Pittsburgh.)
Stacey Gotsulias is a contributor to Beyond the Box Score. You can follow her on Twitter @StaceGots.