Going into his seventh season, Ivan Nova will be the Pittsburgh Pirates’ most experienced starting pitcher in 2017.  He will also be the most important.

Last season, the Pirates acquired Nova at the trade deadline in exchange for minor league outfielder Tito Polo and lefty Steven Tarpley.  In 11 starts with the Pirates, Nova went 5-2 over 64.2 innings with a 3.06 ERA and 2.62 FIP.  He struck out 52 batters while walking just three.  That is good for an otherworldly – and likely unsustainable – 17.33 K/BB ratio.  Nova also threw three complete games, albeit one was shortened due to rain and later dubbed a tie.

In December, Ivan Nova re-upped with the Pirates for three years worth $26 million.  The signing was more than necessary as the Pirates’ biggest question mark for the 2017 season was – and still may be- the starting rotation.

The Pittsburgh Pirates will heavily rely on Nova to provide stability in a rotation that faces question marks on the front and back ends. He will serve as the keystone upon which this rotation is built. Is he up to it?

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Red Flags

  • Ivan Nova threw 162 innings last season.  The most he’s ever thrown in a season was 170.1 in 2012.  With a young starting rotation, the Pittsburgh Pirates will rely heavily on Nova to eat innings and put some ease on both the bullpen and the rest of the rotation.  For the Pittsburgh Pirates to be successful, Nova will at least need to sniff the 200 inning mark.
  • Before coming to the Pirates, Nova has been prone to giving up the long ball.  In his time with the Yankees last year, Nova gave up 19 home runs in 97.1 innings compiling 1.8 home runs given up per nine innings.  For his career, Nova gives up 1.1 home runs per nine.  In his short time with the Pirates last year, he gave up 0.6 per nine. Which Nova will the club see in 2017?
  • In general, Ivan Nova has been an average pitcher over the duration of his career.  With a career ERA of 4.30, that is clear.  Even with the shiny stat line over two months in Pittsburgh last season, Nova still was unable to get J.A. Happ-type money.  Perhaps he took less money to stay with the Pittsburgh Pirates as he has alluded to in recent interviews. The fact remains that Nova’s performance in 2017 will be the linchpin in guging this rotation,  3/5 of which will be dependent on guys who haven’t seen a full year in the MLB.  The one starter aside from Nova with more than a year of experience – Gerrit Cole – is coming off an injury filled season.  Maybe it will all click and everyone will excel.  It would be equally unsurprising if this rotation was struggling come July.

Green Lights

As we know,  Nova was excellent with the Pittsburgh Pirates last season in his short time.  How might he be able to duplicate that in 2017 over the course of a full season?

  • Nova’s success with the Pirates was predicated on getting to 0-1. As we’ve previously discussed, Nova saw a 11 percent jump to a 69.4 percent first-strike rate compared to his 2016 Yankees tenure. His curveball gained 23 percent effectiveness in being thrown for a first strike pitch, and his four seamer jumped by 31 percent in this regard. He hit the zone, and did not allow walks or home run. That is a very repeatable formula for success.
  • One advantage Nova has on his side is the switch from the American League to the National League.  We have seen in this in the past.  The Pittsburgh Pirates poach what seem like American League fringe starters and turn them into solid front end guys.  AJ Burnett, Francisco Liriano, JA Happ, all came from the AL as ailing starters but re-found success in the NL.  Edinson Volquez didn’t come from the AL, but he too found success in Pittsburgh. Nova seems to be the guy who will fill that mold next.  He has enjoyed success, struggled, and is now in the National League.  Same song and dance.
  • Nova’s ability to not walk anyone was insane last year.  Three walks over 64.2 innings.  Small sample size or not that is beyond exceptional.  Obviously nobody can expect to walk a little less than half of a batter over nine innings, but 1.5-2.0 BB/9 is realistic.  Last year in total, Nova walked 1.6 per nine.  Once again, the lesser talent in the NL makes it easier to be more aggressive and attack the strike zone.  If Nova can throw efficiently with a lower walk total, he will be able to throw deeper into games.  He will be able to compile more innings.

Expectation vs. Reality

Nova will most likely slot as the Pittsburgh Pirates third starter.  His Fangraphs 2017 ZiPS projects him to have a 1.5 WAR but that is only with 120 innings pitched.  Baeball Prospectus’ PECOTA projections are kinder, forecasting 168 innings pitched, but with a 4.03 ERA. The truth – as always – seems to lie somewhere in the middle and realistically, it would be fair to expect Nova to throw around 175 innings pitched with a 3.60 ERA.  Partnering that with a 7 K/9 and 1.75 BB/9, Nova could easily end that year with a WAR around 3.

If that is the case, the Pirates will have gotten great value from the below-market signing.

The key for the veteran starter will be to continue to start off at-bats Look for Ivan Nova to pitch at least similar to the way he did with the Pirates in 2016.

Nathan Hursh

Nathan is a graduate of Duquesne University with a degree in journalism. He has been a lifelong Pirates fans and loves watching baseball. Along with baseball, Nathan also has a passion for watching football and basketball. When he is not sitting on his couch indulging in sports, Nathan likes to be active outside. Along with Twitter, he can also be found on Instagram at nathan_hursh.