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All Hail Ivan Nova, King Of The 5th Starters

Ivan Nova has been way better than the common narrative would lead you to believe.
Photo: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Boston Red Sox have just eliminated the Houston Astros from the playoffs and are advancing to the World Series. They finished the regular season with the best record in baseball at 109-54.

The Los Angeles Dodgers are currently leading the series against the Milwaukee Brewers 3-2. One more win for the Dodgers, and we’ll get to see a Boston-Los Angeles World Series matchup. Just what we all wanted.

The Red Sox lead the entire league in payroll (according to Spotrac) with $228,398,860. The Dodgers were 3rd in total payroll with $199,582,045. The Dodgers haven’t advanced to the World Series yet, so it’s worth mentioning that the Brewers are 22nd in total payroll with $108,982,016.

The $228,398,860 in payroll gave the Red Sox the ability to roll out an opening day starting rotation of Chris Sale, David Price, Rick Porcello, Eduardo Rodriguez, and Brian Johnson. The $199,582,045 gave the Dodgers a rotation of Clayton Kershaw, Alex Wood, Kenta Maeda, Rich Hill, and Hyun-jin Ryu.

Clayton Kershaw is the best pitcher of the last decade. Chris Sale likely would have won the Cy Young Award if he had pitched in enough innings to qualify for the award. David Price might not be in his prime any longer, but he’s still an excellent pitcher. Both teams have their fair share of high-end talent.

But despite having a combined payroll of $427,980,905, their opening day rotations weren’t star-studded top to bottom.

For example, the team that will for sure be playing in the World Series, the team with the highest payroll in the league (by nearly $23 million), had built a rotation that used Brian Johnson, Nathan Eovaldi, and Drew Pomeranz 35 times. Despite the uncertainty around these 3 guys, the Red Sox starting rotation still managed to have the 4th best ERA- in the league at 84.

Let’s loop this all back around to be relevant to the Pirates. Obviously, the Pirates leading the league in payroll won’t happen during my lifetime, which will lead to glaring holes in the roster at times. But heading into 2019, there is no hole in the starting rotation.

I made a poll on Twitter the other day asking whether or not Ivan Nova would be a Pirate at the start of spring training. It turns out 57% of people think that Nova will not be on the Pirates roster.

If the 57% of you are reading this right now, I’ve got some bad news for you. Ivan Nova will be back next year.

I’m personally a huge fan of upside. I would essentially always take the high risk/high upside player over the low risk/low upside player. If Chad Kuhl was healthy, I would gladly take him over Ivan Nova as the Pirates #5 starter. But he’s not, and the Pirates don’t really have any other in-house options that are obvious upgrades over Nova.

The Pirates rotation is basically set for next year. Chris Archer, Jameson Taillon, Joe Musgrove, Trevor Williams, and Ivan Nova should be the opening day rotation. The top 4 in the rotation looks pretty solid. Chris Archer has the upside to be a top of the rotation guy, Taillon and Williams both posted ERAs in the low 3s, and Joe Musgrove’s could easily improve upon his 2018 season. There is certainly some doubt around some of these guys. Will Archer take a step forward, or will he have another 4 ERA season? Will Williams be able to match his 2018 season and have a low 3’s ERA, or will he match his 2017 season and have a low 4’s ERA? Will Joe Musgrove improve and will he be able to stay healthy?

All of these are valid questions. The backend guy, Ivan Nova, certainly has some questions surrounding him as well. But what team’s 5th starter doesn’t have question marks?

Let’s take a look some of the playoff teams’ starting pitchers this year. Here is a graph that takes the 6 playoff teams that made it past the Wild Card round. I’ve taken all of those teams’ starting pitchers throughout the year, filtered them by pitchers with at least 10 GS, and then filtered that down to the 20% of pitchers with the highest ERA. Using 10 GS is an arbitrary number, but I had to pick something, and I feel that 10 starts is a good number to use for this. Then, I used the 20% highest ERA’s. I chose this simply because, in theory, the bottom 20% of the league are the #5 starters of the league.


I feel like this must be stressed. Ivan Nova is a perfectly fine #5 starter. He is boring, and sometimes frustrating (though I’d argue Hurdle is what makes Nova frustrating, maybe more on that at some other time). But he’s fine. Acquiring another pitcher would be awesome, but this team is currently without a shortstop, right fielder for a few months, has a catcher that has some serious issues, and could use upgrades at both corner infield spots. Acquiring pitching would be great, but this team has other holes to fill first.

The Pirates could make the playoffs with Ivan Nova at the #5 spot. He’s not good enough to trade for, and he’s not bad enough to trade away. His contract is right in line with what he deserves, and Pirate fans should embrace him for who he is, rather than what they wish he was.

Fun Fact: Ivan Nova is #6 (3.99) and Jeff Karstens is #7 (4.14)!


Jake is a Pirates contributor to The Point of Pittsburgh. He is currently attending Saint Vincent College and is pursuing a degree in Finance. You might know him as @CannonballCrner on Twitter. Jake used to write for his own site, but now does all his writing at the Point of Pittsburgh. He is a big fan of the slider and wishes Chad Kuhl a speedy recovery.

11 Comments on All Hail Ivan Nova, King Of The 5th Starters

  1. I think your commentary is spot-on. Look, someone has to take the bump 30 times a year in the #5 role, and Nova has been generally healthy and carries an ERA around 4.00. Frankly, that’s a “problem” that any number of teams would like to have.

  2. Silkychubs // October 19, 2018 at 12:28 PM //

    I think the problem is they have two #5 starters i n Nova and Williams. I think they should see if a team would be willing to pay for a #2-#3 Trevor Williams, even though he’s really a #5. Then they could perhaps upgrade that spot in the rotation if at all possible.

  3. Based upon performance I don’t see Williams as a #5. As to Nova he is OK as your analysis shows. My question is whether or not the Pirates can and should be paying the #5 starter $9+M. Granted most of the other starters are making minimal type salaries so overall starters salaries are relatively low. But….could we use $7-8M of Nova’s salary, plus some more dollars, to find a player who has HR power which we desperately need? The trade off is finding a guy who can play most every day and win some games with his bat versus a pitcher who gets you 7-9 wins a year.

    • Kevin Creagh // October 19, 2018 at 2:13 PM //

      Earlier this week, I proposed trading Nova plus 2 mid-range prospects to the D-Backs for LHP Robbie Ray and SS Nick Ahmed. The salaries are a wash, so you’re filling two spots of need for one.

      • We should certainly trade for Ahmed! That would be a huge get for this team. Significantly improved defense and marginally better offense at a lower cost

  4. Phillip C-137 // October 19, 2018 at 5:04 PM //

    “Chris Archer has the upside to be a top of the rotation guy”

    I guess if people say this often enough and fervently enough I’m supposed to eventually agree with it, but so far I have resisted joining this cult of “Archer’s a #1”. (Full disclosure – I was a member of the “Glasnow Can
    Be A #1” group.)

    Exactly what numbers are being extrapolated, combined, pureed and filtered to come up with this narrative? Is he still getting credit for what he did 4 or 5 years ago? (If so, let’s get Maddux, he had a great year in 2000.)
    Or is it that #1 is just relative per team?

    Archer had a 2018 Pirate ERA of 4.30. This is the 5TH best ERA among the starters (Williams, Taillon, Musgrove, Nova then Archer).

    Quality Starts is a flawed stat, but it does tell you something. In 2018 all of the 25-26 years olds (Williams, Taillon, Musgrove and Kuhl) had QS percentages of 50% of more over all of their starts. (Taillon was best at 20 in 32 for a 63% QS percentage.) Nova (age 31) had a QS percentage of 48% and Archer (age 30) was at 40%. (PS Archer’s best QS % was 63% – in 2014.)

    The last time Archer had 3 consecutive 7.0 IP or more outings was in May-June of 2017 (21.2 IP 8 ER). He’s had 5 such streaks in his career – 2 in 2013, 1 in 2014, 1 in 2015 and 1 in 2017. (7 IP may be arbitrary, but it’s the number I went with because shouldn’t your Ace do more than just the accepted minimum?)

    While I agree Nova is perfectly acceptable as the #5, please explain why Archer is constantly referred to as a “top of the rotation” guy. Or when you say “top” do you mean top half?

    • Kevin Creagh….why would the D’Backs do that deal? I like it from our end, but it sucks as a D’back fan. My sister and brother in law are D’back fans and they scoffed at that deal.

      • Kevin Creagh // October 20, 2018 at 12:38 PM //

        The D-Backs would get 2-3 prospects, albeit not great ones, in return for taking Nova. Nova eats 180+ innings for a rebuilding team, they get a chance to evaluate Nick Kingham, Kevin Newman, other prospect. It’s not like Ahmed is bringing a huge return by himself.

    • Jake Smail // October 20, 2018 at 11:52 AM //

      No real number crunching to come to the conclusion that Archer could be a ‘top of the rotation guy’. That opinion mostly comes from me liking his stuff. With that said, his peripherals have been quite good for a few years, and coming into the season ZiPS had him projected at a 3.27 ERA while still pitching in the AL East. I don’t think he’ll be Scherzer-esque, but I absolutely think he could put up numbers better than AJ Burnett had while he was here, and I considered him a top of the rotation guy while he was here.

  5. Philip,

    I agree with this statement. At his age, he is what he is:

    ” please explain why Archer is constantly referred to as a ?top of the rotation ? guy. Or when you say ?top ? do you mean top half?”

  6. Why pay $9M to a guy with a #4 ceiling? I’d rather go get a LHP with #2 potential (i.e. Duffy) and pay $15M

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