After being traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates at the 2016 Trade Deadline, Ivan Nova pitched strong in the next two months and turned that into a three-year extension. A year later, is his presence in the starting rotation actually a hindrance?
The Pittsburgh Pirates’ 2018 rotation seems all-but-certain even with Spring Training games two weeks away. Jameson Taillon, Ivan Nova, Joe Musgrove, Chad Kuhl and Trevor Williams are all penciled in as starters.
Taillon, Kuhl and Williams are young starters that have shown varying degrees of potential and deserve more time to showcase their abilities. Musgrove is the new kid in town and, while given a rotation spot, is also a young arm with potential.
That leaves Nova as the odd-man out as the lone veteran of the staff.
However, Nova’s experience isn’t the only things separating him from the pack.
On Aug. 1, 2016, Nova joined the Pittsburgh Pirates while Stephen Tarpley and Tito Polo became members of the New York Yankees. Up to that point, Nova had a 4.90 ERA, 1.36 WHIP, 5.10 FIP and 88 ERA+ in 21 games, 15 of which were starts.
This wasn’t much of a surprise because in his seven seasons with the Yankees, Nova had a career 4.40 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 1.39 FIP and 95 ERA+. He had been that young gun at one point that had shown flashes of potential but also showed too much inconsistency.
Yet, once Nova joined the Pirates, things suddenly turned around.
Most incredibly, Nova only walked three batters and allowed four home runs over 64.2 innings with the Pirates. His ability to limit base runners and long balls helped bolster his numbers.
After struggling in those categories so much with the Yankees and so often at hitter-friendly Yankee Stadium, Nova took advantage of taking the mound at pitcher-heaven PNC Park. In six starts at his new home, Nova posted a 2.45 ERA and 0.92 WHIP. He did not allow more than three runs in any of those starts.
After the season, Nova inked a $26-million deal for three years to remain in Pittsburgh. Nova would make $7-million in base salary in 2017 and then $8.5-million in 2018 and 2019. This made him the third-highest player on the 2017 team and is on paper as the third-highest in 2018. His contract was cheap compared to the rest of the league, but not for a team with the sixth-lowest payroll in 2017. The Pirates were taking a risk.
Struggles in 2017
Aside from the first month of the 2017 season, Nova was a below average pitcher for the Pirates. In April, he wasn’t just above-average, he was the National League’s Pitcher of the Month after posting a 1.50 ERA, 0.75 WHIP and 22.0 SO/BB while holding hitters to a 1.98/.211/.290 slash line. All of those figures would be Nova’s best of the season.
From there, things only got worse.
Nova’s ability to limit walks and home runs made him so successful in 2016 and in April of 2017, but they were Nova’s undoing there on out. In his first 16 starts as a Pirate dating back to 2016, Nova only walked a combined four batters, yet would walk 35 more in his next 26 starts. After allowing only two home runs in April, Nova allowed an average of 5.4 per month the rest of the way.
As his walks and home runs increased, so too did Nova’s ERA and WHIP balloon. What looked to be a promising start to his Pirates’ career and a favorable team contract both quickly changed as Nova’s 2017 steadily got worse and worse.
One thing that never changed was Nova’s strong numbers at home. He only allowed more than three runs in a single game at PNC Park just twice and both times he allowed at most three earned runs. Nova finished the season with a 2.63 ERA and 1.20 WHIP, but it wasn’t enough to mask his overall disappointing numbers.
Getting in the way
Unlike Taillon, Nova, Kuhl and Williams, Nova does not have potential. His abilities are already known and he’s had his fair share of chances in his career to change his results.
Even though he still has this coming season and next on his contract, the Pirates have no obligation to keep Nova in the rotation. Additionally, there is no reason to keep him if he struggles even more this season. While this team will not make the postseason, it would be foolish to keep a struggling, middle-aged player just because of contractual obligations.
Instead, the PIttsburgh Pirates would be best served by giving a younger player a chance. Steven Brault and Nick Kingham are two players that will start the season in the minors perhaps unjustly so because of Nova. Brault was the organization’s Minor League Pitcher of the Year award while in Triple-A Indianapolis, but he only made four major-league starts. Kingham has been in the Pirates’ system for eight year and has been in Triple-A for parts of the last three years.
Beyond Kingham and Brault, there are others waiting. Clay Holmes quickly rose to Triple-A in his fifth season with the Pirates last year and barring injury or ineffectiveness, will be in the majors at some point this season. Mitch Keller will likely begin the season in Triple-A, but could get to the majors this year if he gets off to a strong start.
Time is running out for Nova. He needs to show off more of what he did in his first three months with the Pirates to prove his worthiness in Pittsburgh. Otherwise, someone younger will take his place.
Photo Credit – Keith Allison – Flickr Creative Commons