Last year Neal Huntington made one of the best deadline deals in franchise history by grabbing J.A. Happ. The trade was a blessing at the time and a curse now. Since Huntington was not willing to give Happ close to the largest free agent contract in club history this past offseason, the rotation was down an arm and he was forced to go dumpster diving yet again.
That’s the curse for people like Huntington and Ray Searage: if you find a needle in a haystack, the general public isn’t going to be celebrating for too long. Soon they’re going to be bringing you more haystacks.
The problem with this model is there isn’t always a Happ available. This year’s pitching market was historically thin. There were big names floated around (Chris Sale, Chris Archer, Julio Teheran), but none were traded. Mix that in with a very weak upcoming free agent class and there were barely any rental pitchers up for grabs who were worth a look.
Fortunately for the Pirates, they may have struck gold again with the trade for Ivan Nova. Even after a shaky start in San Francisco Wednesday, Nova has been the best starter who changed teams this July so far.
While he is lagging behind in punchouts, he is first in just about every other category. His ERA is close to the rest of the pack, but that is mostly due to a small sample size being thrown off by one bad start. In the other two, he tossed a gem and had an effective start where he was pulled in the sixth. In fact, that is how Happ’s first three starts in Pittsburgh went: a rough outing (4 ER in 4.1 innings), a good one (1 ER in 5.1 innings) and a gem (6 shutout innings). The end result: allowing 23 runners to reach base in 15.2 innings. In 16.1 so far with the Pirates, Nova has allowed 21. Happ has the edge in ERA and Nova is ahead in WHIP(1.30 to 1.51).
Can Pirate fans expect Nova to be another midseason reclamation success story? Well, based off of their peripherals coming into Pittsburgh, it seems like Nova was the better pitcher.
So, how do the Pirates make Nova the next Happ? It could be as simple as four “easy” steps.
Control the dingers
This is obviously easier said than done. As far as analysis goes, “just stop giving up home runs” is just about as bad as “don’t give up first downs” or “don’t miss a shot.”
But Nova’s biggest problem before coming to Pittsburgh was his nearly comedic 21.3% home run to flyball ratio. It’s not the first time he has struggled with this either, namely in 2014 where 26.1% of his flyballs left the yard.
Even with the sudden boom of home runs around the league in 2016, if that number regresses back to his career mark of 13.5%, he is a good candidate for a career rebirth. Since coming to Pittsburgh, Nova has an 11.1% HR/FB rate.
A change in scenery could help. Seven of the 19 home runs Nova allowed as a Yankee fell into what ESPN calls the “just enough” category (meaning it cleared the wall by less than 10 feet). Moving away from the notoriously tiny Yankee Stadium to spacious PNC Park should help keep some of those homers that scrape the back of the wall in the park. After all, according to ESPN’s park factors, batters have the best chance of hitting a homerun in Yankee Stadium. PNC Park is the fourth hardest place to homer.
Don’t keep him in too long
Happ succeeded in Pittsburgh because he was not asked to go deep into games. He only pitched into the seventh inning once as a Pirate and did not complete six innings in five of his 11 starts. That seventh inning is a wall for a lot of starters, and Nova is no exception. He has pitched 113.2 innings this year, with 10.2 of those innings coming in the seventh inning or later. He’s allowed 46 of his earned runs in the first through sixth inning (4.02 ERA). He’s allowed 15 in the 10.2 innings he’s tossed from the seventh onwards (12.66 ERA).
If you have a good back end of the bullpen like the Pirates do, why let Nova pitch deep into games if he doesn’t have to? Let your best players play when they can excel.
Happ benefited from a fantastic 85.5% left on base percentage in Pittsburgh. The MLB average is around 73% for starters. That means out of every eight batters who reached base, Happ prevented one from scoring that a league average pitcher would not have.
Some argue that stranding baserunners is a skill. Others (including myself) say that pitchers with high strand rates should play the lottery. Eventually it will catch up to a pitcher. But that’s not to say he can’t leave a lot of men on base for a handful of starts.
In Nova’s first two starts, he stranded 90 percent of his baserunners. On Wednesday, two-thirds of the Giants who reached base scored. On the year he has let an average of one of four base runners come home. The difference between having a sub-3 or upper-4 ERA will come down to how often Nova can make his opposition eat LOBster.
Sprinkle in some Pirates pixie dust
This is the magic that has made the Pirates a factory for pumping out quality pitchers. Utilizing shifts. Working with Searage. Having two potential gold glove outfielders to bail you out with great plays. Learning what pitches to throw when and what could be improved in the delivery.
This alchemy of turning mediocre pitchers into gold is what has made the Pirates a playoff team. It doesn’t work for everyone (Jon Niese has a thing or two to say about shifts), but Nova looks like a good candidate. We’ve already had glimpses of brilliance.
Now the question is if it will just be glimpses or if Nova can develop into the front of the rotation starter the Pirates desperately need.