Ivan Nova was one of the big reasons the 2011 Yankees rotation was an unexpected success. Nova, who was not even assured of a rotation spot in spring training, ended up as the clear number 2 starter by seasons end. Nova finished 2011 going 16-4, with a 3.70 ERA, and a 1.33 WHIP. A lot is expected out of Nova to build on last year and continue to be the number 2 starter on the Yankees barring a trade. A sophomore slump is common for a rookie coming off a good rookie season. Whether or not Nova has a sophomore slump will be a huge key to the Yankees in the 2012 season.
It is hard to quantify whether Nova will have a sophomore slump or not. With so little career data to go by that determination is tough to make. I was fond of Nova from when he made his major league starting debut on August 23, 2010 against the Toronto Blue Jays. I liked his stuff, but what really endeared me to him was when he went at Jose Bautista up and in after Bautista showed him up with a home run, the previous at-bat. It showed me Nova had the mental toughness and fearlessness to succeed. To challenge one of the best hitters in baseball like that showed me something, and it really stuck in my mind.
In 2010 Nova’s main issue was the lack of a true out pitch. Nova had a great curve but when it wasn’t working he had nothing to go to, to put hitters away. However, after Nova returned from the minors in the 2nd half of 2011, he featured a dramatically improved slider. This allowed him to get a lot more swings and misses, and to take his game to the next level. However, Nova will have to continue to get better in this area to be an elite starter. He only averaged a 5.33 K/9, and as a result only a 1.72 K/BB ratio.
What also made Nova successful was his heavy 2 seam fastball that allowed him to only have a 0.7 HR/9, and get ground balls 52.7% of the time. Being a ground ball pitcher at Yankee Stadium is an excellent thing for Nova. If he can get a reasonable amount of strike-outs, and a lot of ground balls, Ivan will have plenty of success at Yankee Stadium moving forward.
I think now that he has four legit pitches in his 4 seam fastball, 2 seam fastball, curve, slider, and even a changeup mixed in, Nova can really benefit from mixing his pitches up well. Such ability to keep hitters off balance should continue to get better as he becomes more mature as a pitcher.
How all of this will translate to 2012 is the big question mark. The Yankees really need Nova to at least come close to repeating his 2011 performance. You pretty much know what you will be getting from C.C. Sabathia, Freddy Garcia, and (unfortunately) A.J. Burnett, as his performance is unlikely to change much. So that leaves Ivan Nova and Phil Hughes as the wildcards. Even though Hughes fell off a bit at the end of 2010, everybody expected a big 2011 – but it didn’t happen. That should be seen as a warning sign that there is no guarantee that Nova will be as good this season.
The Yankees can’t afford Nova to take the same kind of nose-dive, unless Hughes returns to first-half of 2010 form. Bill James is projecting a 10-10 record, with a 4.28 ERA, 4.11 FIP, and a 6.10 K/9 in 183 innings for Nova. That seems considerably worse than last year, but those numbers are in now way set in stone. I think if Nova repeats his last year’s numbers, that would be a huge success, but you should probably expect at least a slight drop off considering he did out-pitch his peripheral numbers last year. However, in the long run I still have complete faith in Nova to be a staple in the Yankees rotation. This is big, as the Yankees have not developed a legit starting pitcher since Andy Pettitte. I would say Phil Hughes has to prove more to be taken into consideration.
I like Nova’s improving strikeout potential stuff, his ability to keep the ball on the ground, and his smooth and sound mechanics. Most of all I like what you cannot decipher in stats about him. I love his mound presence, mental toughness, and confidence. All of this was evidenced by Nova performing well on the biggest stage- the playoffs. While he may be due for a little slip this year, Ivan Nova should be a big part of the Yankees rotation for the foreseeable future.