Pittsburgh Pirates SP Ivan Nova has seen his effectiveness fall off of his late-2016 levels. A lack of deception may be to blame.
The Pittsburgh Pirates checked off a major item on their offseason to-do list by signing starting pitcher Ivan Nova to a three-year deal to keep him in Pittsburgh.
And why wouldn’t they, with the performance Nova gave the team over the season’s final two months. Nova was a wunderkind, pitching to a 2.62 FIP while allowing just 0.4 walks per nine innings.
That rate was naturally unsustainable, but no matter as Nova still leads qualified National League starting pitchers with just 1.2 BB/9. Otherwise, however, Nova looks much more like the middle-of-the-road hurler he was shown to be during his time with the New York Yankees than the steady, unflappable force upon his entry into the NL.
To illustrate that point, you can pick any metric you wish. Nova is actually out pitching his FIP — landing with a 3.66 ERA against a 4.31 FIP — while giving up more HR/9 (1.3, as opposed to 0.6 during his 2016 Pirates run) while striking out nearly two less hitters per nine (5.6 this season as opposed to 7.2 in his first 11 Pittsburgh Pirates starts).
Never slapped with the “strikeout pitcher” label, Nova nonetheless did a good job of getting pitchers to offer at pitches outside of the strike zone in 2016.
As the calendar turned to 2017, that seems to no longer be the case.
Deception does not always mean a strikeout
Before we go any further, we should clarify that when we bandy the term “deception” about, we are not necessarily talking about a strikeout. Deception has many forms — getting a hitter to lay out and make weak contact on a pitch he never should have offered at in the first place, for example — and the Pittsburgh Pirates would welcome it in any form.
But year over year, Nova has proven to be very hittable even on pitches that are not traditionally a hitter’s favorite.
Look at this strikeout from 2016:
This pitch, labelled by Statcast as a two-seam fastball, had fantastic late movement. Though this pitch resulted in a strikeout, one could easily also see a batter making weak contact on it, much like this:
Both pitches were two seam fastballs. Both had good movement and both resulted in an out. But the lack of deception in Nova’s offerings are not best illustrated by these two samples, which are admittedly cherry-picked. But, what they do illustrate is that an out is an out, and the Pittsburgh Pirates would welcome ground ball outs 100 out of 100 times if a strikeout is not in the cards.
Again, deception does not always equal a strikeout.
But it sure is nice to have.
This year, Nova does not have it.
The table below illustrates where Nova stands in 2017 in some key metrics that help us define “deception.”
Nova plate discipline
|Rate||Rank Among NL Qualified SPs|
This table tells us that while Nova still is very adept at starting an at-bat off in his favor (F-strike, or “First Strike), hitters still feel comfortable enough to swing at one-third of his pitches outside of the strike zone, the 6th highest such rate among qualified NL starters. Couple that with a high amount of contact on those swings (O-Contact %) along with an overall inability to create swings and misses (SwStr %), and it becomes clear that Nova is performing as a quintessential pitch-to-contact hurler at this point.
Which would be perfectly fine, if Pittsburgh Pirates fans and observers did not get to see what a slightly more deceptive Nova looked like in 2016’s final two months. Again, Nova has never been a high-strikeout guy with a career 6.6 K/9 rate, but striking out nearly two less batters per nine year-over-year can put a lot of scenarios in play. Suddenly, if a pitch such as those two-seamers above have even a little bit less bite, it becomes something the hitter can work with.
Downward trends result in a perfectly fine pitcher
During his time with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2016, 10.47 percent of Nova’s pitches that were outside of the zone resulted in a swing or miss or were put in play for an out. Pitches outside the zone put in play during this time had an average exit velocity of 79.6 mph.
In 2017, that number has dropped to 8.04 percent, with an average of 81.4 on those put in play. The comfort that hitters feel facing Nova’s stuff spells out to the right-hander being forced to come into the zone more often — 48.5 percent of the time in 2017 as opposed to 41.9 percent in 2016.
This is small movement to be sure, but it is those small movements combined with other fluctuations that add up to a pitcher that does not appear to be close to his 2016 Pirates form.
Solid? Yes. Absolutely. Many teams would love to have the 2017 version of the 30 year-old hurler on their club.
Super Nova? Not quite.
Image credit – Daniel Decker Photography