In recent weeks, a generated controversy in the Pirates community has been the question of ‘Who’s the real ace of the staff — Jameson Taillon or Gerrit Cole?’ This is a silly debate, because I didn’t think it was a problem to have two (or more) pitchers that can pitch at an ace-type level. I blame this all on Twilight forcing their fans to choose between Team Jacob and Team Edward. I swear I had to Google Twilight to find those two names. I promise I’ve never watched the movies or read the books. Alright, I’m losing my audience here.
Gerrit Cole is sorting some stuff out this year, especially with his gopher ball tendencies, while Jameson Taillon gives up a few too many walks at times. But both are great pitchers and are forming a strong 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation that every team would love to have.
However, there’s another pitcher smack dab in the middle of the rotation that every team had a chance to have this past offseason in the form of Ivan Nova. Whether the league collectively shrugged their shoulders or Nova decided that, money be damned, this is where he wanted to be, Nova signed what many in the punditry world (myself included) considered to be a below-market rate deal with the Pirates for 3 years/$26M. If you spread his $2M signing bonus over all three years and add to his $7M base salary for 2017, Nova is pulling down just $7.66M this year. Charlie Morton, yes that one, signed with the Astros for 2 years/$14M. While Morton’s off to a solid start with them, you know he’ll eventually Charlie Morton all over the place at some point. It’s his raison d’être.
Meanwhile, Ivan Nova has picked right back up where he left off 2016 after coming over from the Yankees (the Pirates’ talent feeder pipeline) at the deadline. Nova is flat out refusing to walk anybody. In 118 starts with the Yankees, Nova walked 4 or more batters 11 times. After he faced the Yankees on April 23rd, Nova had walked 4 batters in his Pirates’ tenure. Total.
Ray Searage has imbued in Nova a confidence in his stuff and a confidence in the players behind him, which is quite bold on his part, allowing him to just rip strikes. His first pitch strike percentage is a strong 66.9% this year, a marked difference from his 54.7% in 2015 and 58.4% in 2016 while with the Yankees. That immediately jumped to 66.9% after the trade here and has been matched into 2017. Not to put too fine a point on this, but if you are consistently getting ahead of batters 0-1, you put yourself in a better position for success, as opposed to being 1-0. For comparison, Cole is at 67.7% on his first strikes, while Taillon is at 58.4%.
He’s coupled that with a career-high zone percentage of 51.3%. So he’s filling the zone up higher than ever and he’s getting strikes at his highest rate. That pairing portends success and that’s exactly what Ivan Nova has received.
After Nova’s latest gem on Saturday night against the Marlins, he has now made 16 starts with the Pirates, essentially a half-season’s worth, and his stats are stunning. He’s pitched 100.2 innings (extrapolated out to 201.1 over a full 32-start season), with a 2.50 ERA/2.62 FIP, 8.4 H/9, 6.6 K/9, and only 0.45 BB/9. To put that in perspective, I generated this chart from Fangraphs for all qualified pitchers during this new millenium and sorted by BB/9. If Nova were to keep this up (using 2017’s 0.25 BB/9 rate), he would have the lowest rate since 2000. If you use his 0.45 BB/9 overall Pirate rate, he would be second lowest behind Carlos Silva’s 0.43 BB/9 in 2005.
I love to watch Cole and Taillon because of their pure stuff, but sometimes with racehorses you get some volatility from time to time. Ivan Nova is more of a thoroughbred and for me, I’m totally at ease when he’s on the mound. There’s a sense of calmness that I have wash over me that it’s going to be a solid start and he’s going to put the Pirates in a great spot to win the game.
— The Point of Pgh (@thepointofpgh) April 23, 2017
Saturday night’s Marlin beatdown was a Maddux for Nova, meaning he pitched a complete game shutout in less than 100 pitches, named after Greg Maddux who pitched quite a few of them in his day. It’s a sign of efficiency and complete domination by a pitcher.
I doubt a single person in Pittsburgh was excited when Ivan Nova was traded here. I know I wasn’t. But yet again, the Pirates had identified a pitcher they saw something in that could be tweaked. I’ve always thought that Edinson Volquez was Ray Searage’s greatest reclamation success — he was pretty much pitching himself out of the league, had a great year with the Pirates in 2014, then parlayed that into pitching in the World Series the next year with the Royals. But Ivan Nova is rapidly climbing the ranks. Volquez established himself as a solid #3-level pitcher with the Pirates in 2014 and then the Royals in 2015, but he regressed in 2016 with the Royals and is now off to a mediocre start with the Marlins. Nova has a chance to eclipse Volquez’s production, as he’s pitching like a high-end #2 pitcher, while getting paid for the next three years as a #5-level pitcher. Of course, it’s still more money that can be attributed to the economic stimulator known as Ray Searage.
So what exactly is Nova doing with his pitches doing to garner so much success with the Pirates? If you look at his pitch breakdown by PitchF/X, he’s de-emphasized his curveball this year (30.3% with Pirates in 2016 to 17.5% this year) in favor of more four-seam fastballs. As catcher Chris Stewart said to TPOP’s Alex Stumpf after Nova’s start against the Yankees, ““When you throw the four-seam up a little higher than they’re expecting, they’re going to swing through it most of the time,” Stewart said. “The main thing is, it changes the eye level. He’s able to throw it not just in the strike zone, but we’re able to expand on it, too. I think that’s big that he’s able to go up and out of the zone and get swings.”
Paired with his excellent sinker and outstanding-to-date changeup that is worth +5.62 runs/100 pitches, Nova has basically got every batter out of equilibrium and totally flummoxed. In that same Stumpf interview, Stewart mentioned that Nova was throwing the changeup “a lot more this year”, but the rates are virtually the same (6.9% last year to 8.7% this year), so it’s probably just a perception issue with Stewart.
But hey, whatever is working Stew, you keep doing it. In a season where watching the Pirates hit is the equivalent of watching a cruise ship slowly sink into the ocean, with passengers jumping off the top deck, the pitching staff is providing plenty of good performances and hope that maybe with some luck the Pirates can still be competitive.