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From CY To Sigh, The Biggest Difference In Ivan Nova

Could Nova’s arm slot be the key to keeping him on track?. AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar

There’s been plenty of really, really stupid hot takes on Ivan Nova over the last couple months. How his contract is a disaster. How the Pirates need to trade him. My dad claimed to find an op-ed that he was the worst Pirate starter this year. I haven’t found said post myself, but if the writer happens to be reading this: your opinion is bad and you should feel bad. Did you forget that Tyler Glasnow was a thing?

Despite some pretty, shall we say, “questionable” opinions on the Pirates’ veteran righty, it’s ok to be disappointed with his second half performance. A 5.83 second half ERA isn’t going to cut it. The Pirates need him to be a middle of the rotation arm.

Some regression was expected. As amazing as his April was, nobody expected him to maintain it for a full season. And regress he did. Nova’s 4.14 season ERA perfectly lined up with his first half FIP. This was a rather aggressive fall to the mean, though. It’s safe to say this was more than just a bad bounce or two a game: Nova struggled.

So what was different? His pitch selection was mostly the same, though he seemed to do better when he threw his curveball less. He recorded a 2.72 ERA and .943 WHIP in his seven starts where he threw it less than 20% percent of the time. While it would be easy to say to ease up on the hooks, in the seven starts where he threw it at the highest rate, he recorded a healthy 2.89 ERA. It also was his best pitch according to Fangraphs’ pitch value (5 runs above average) and generated the best whiff rate (17.2 percent, according to Baseball Savant). Throwing your best pitch less isn’t a great strategy. Let’s put a pin in that.

Venue may have played a role. Eight of his first 16 starts were at home, but 11 of his last 15 were on the road. He pitched much better at home, going 8-2 with a 2.80 ERA at PNC Park compared to 3-12 with a 5.02 ERA as the visitor. Teams may have also caught onto his aggressive pitching and attacked the first pitch more often. Batters hit .138 on the first pitch of the at-bat in April. They hit .364 in the second half. And, of course, he had the audacity to walk the occasional batter, which mucked everything up.

These are all good trends, but they all sound like symptoms. We’re trying to get to the root cause of what happened in the second half. That brings us to the most common explanation: fatigue.

The coaching staff eventually came to the conclusion. It’s a reasonable assumption since Nova was in the middle of his first year as a full-time starter and already threw a career high amount of innings. He started to sputter at the part of the season where he would either be demoted to the bullpen or sidelined with injury.

He disagreed, and he had a case. His velocity and pitch movement held fairly steady, and his xFIP between the first and second half was nearly identical (4.17 in the first three months vs. 4.22 in the last three).

But pitching is more than just results; it’s mechanical. And there was a noticeable mechanical change happening around the time he started to stumble: his release point fluctuated. A change in release point can indicate an injury or fatigue. This is probably the best evidence to support the fatigue theory.

We can notice a notable drop in Nova’s average horizontal release point in July. From there on, he was clearly not throwing the ball from the same spot as he was in April. The ball was going further away from his body.


It takes a slight jump up in August and September, but that was heavily aided by some crazy outliers. If you look at his game by game release points, he was either continuing to decline or way off his normal season mean.

Nova seems to do his best work when the horizontal release point on his fastball is around -2.3 to -2.5 feet. He hit that sweet spot with his two-seamer in seven of his first eight starts of the season and fell 0.01 feet away from making it eight of his first nine. Nova had a 2.48 ERA in that stretch. He hit the sweet spot just once in the second half of the season: a six inning outing against the Brewers in August where he was charged with just one earned run.

We saw this take precedent with his left-handed/right-handed splits. Nova did fine against southpaws in the first half, holding them to a .328 wOBA and a 3.20 ERA. Again, for the most part, he was in the sweet spot. In the second half, they recorded a .425 wOBA and lit him up for a 7.66 ERA. His average release point took a dive around then.

For reference, here is his fastball chart.

Meanwhile, look at his average release points against right-handed batters. His second half averages are almost identical to how he pitches lefties in the first half. His wOBA against righties was fairly close too: .354. How much of that split is due to the hand advantage and how much is due to the arm slot?

It’s also worth pointing out his average release point started to lower before the second half of the season. Both his four-seam and two-seam release points begin to take a dip after his start in Baltimore in June. He was pulled from that start with left knee inflammation. Nova didn’t miss any time because of the inflammation and his next two outings were even quality starts. His release point was fairly close to the season average then, but I think this might have been the turning point in his season. He might have made a change, even subconsciously, to release the ball slightly different so his delivery put less pressure on his landing knee. It could have been a bad habit that stuck.

So if the release point was the culprit for Nova’s second half slump, can we expect him to improve in 2018? Possibly. If my hunch is right that his knee made him make an adjustment that he never reverted back from, then maybe a full season of April/May Nova is not outrageous. But it may come down to if he can find a comfortable arm slot.

Alex is a Pirates and Duquesne basketball contributor to The Point of Pittsburgh. He graduated from Point Park University with a degree in Journalism and Mass Comm. and a minor in English in 2014. Everything can be explained with numbers. If you want to keep up to date on both teams or have a story idea, you can follow or reach him @AlexJStumpf.

16 Comments on From CY To Sigh, The Biggest Difference In Ivan Nova

  1. Bob Smizik // October 20, 2017 at 11:37 AM //

    It looks to me like the Pirates were cognizant of possible fatigue with Nova and gave him the fifth start after the All-Star Game. That didn’t help. From the ASG to the end of August, he had a 6.38 ERA and a .957 OPS-against. At that point, he was one of the worst starters in the league.

    He was off again from Aug. 30 to Sept 10 and that seemed to help. In four starts in September (one abbreviated) he had a 4.42 ERA and a .794 OPS-against.

    That seems to be the real Nova. He had a 4.33 ERA for the first six years of his career (2010-15). As suggested, he appears to be a competent mid-rotation starter.

    • Charles Vine // October 20, 2017 at 12:21 PM //

      I thing you are correct, Bob. Nova des not have a history of being a dominate pitcher. I also noticed his control wasn’t as outstanding as it was before. It wasn’t anywhere near as poor as Glass’ was but he wasn’t walking any one at all during his dominate streak.

    • Lee Young // October 21, 2017 at 9:16 AM //

      Bob…I’m not buying the mid-rotation tag. Counting all of our current starters as of today, I would place him behind Cole, Taillon, Williams and Kuhl, in that order. And, if Glasnow ever gets his act together, Nova indeed, needs to be dealt.

  2. Nova’s season ERA and FIP numbers from last season were roughly the same they were during his three previous seasons with the Yankees. It is likely that his performance with the Pirates last season is who he is. Perhaps he can make some modest improvement next season but I doubt there will be any dramatic improvement.

    • mark delsignore // October 20, 2017 at 9:24 PM //

      agree Steve
      He is a bottom of the rotation starter
      If you get more than that out of him….playing with house money

    • Bob Stover // October 23, 2017 at 1:31 PM //

      Your comment fails to take into account how poor both Williams and Kuhl were in the first third of the season. You also seem to take for granted that both will resume in 2018 right where they left off in 2017. That would be ideal for the Pirates and we fans, but may be a bit overly optimistic in my opinion.

  3. mark delsignore // October 20, 2017 at 9:26 PM //

    Nova is a bottom of the rotation guy.
    If the Pirates and Pirate fans are counting on him being top of the rotation material, then theses are misplaced expectations.

    • Henry Kassab // October 21, 2017 at 7:12 AM //

      I don’t think anyone looks at Nova as being a top of the rotation guy, but a guy who’s going to give you 28-30 starts, 170+ innings, a classic mid-rotation starter.

    • Bob Stover // October 23, 2017 at 1:41 PM //

      Charlie Morton redux. Always looking for the worst in the Pirates starters, when statistically they are never as bad as you portray them. As soon as C.M. had a bad inning in the NLCS, the naysayers were out in full force. I think he shut them up in Game 7.

      People expect too much when they expect a guy’s performance to have no peeks and valleys throughout a season. There are both physiological and psychological peaks and valleys to an individual’s performance that are to be expected but not in a pattern that anyone can reliably predict.

  4. Amarillo Fats // October 21, 2017 at 11:34 PM //

    Charlie Morton wins the pennant for the Astros.


    Well….I hate to be right, but I was right.

    About the Astros; not Morton.

    • I gotta admit I was wrong. I was among those who figured the Astro’s chances were doomed with Charlie starting the game. Figured he would be gone by the 4th. Glad I was wrong.

    • Bob Stover // October 23, 2017 at 4:39 PM //

      Where’s that “like” button on this blog? Couldn’t agree more. I picked the Tribe to win the AL, and the Nats in the NL, so my prognosticating was a total bust; except that I was right about the Cubs not repeating. The curse of Dusty Baker lives on even perhaps more than Billy the Goat.

  5. Charles Vine // October 22, 2017 at 8:46 AM //

    Jack Buck noted that Jolly Cholly has lost weight and has a new bulldog work approach.

  6. Kellen Nebelski // October 22, 2017 at 10:28 AM //

    Good analysis, Alex. Most coherent and logical explanation I have heard yet.

  7. Kellen Nebelski // October 22, 2017 at 10:47 AM //

    Nova is a quality pitcher. I disagree with the comments here. He doesn’t need to be our ace, nor does he need to be dominant in order to be a quality pitcher. If he throws strikes, gets groundouts, and limits runs even close to how he did for this team for almost an entire year’s worth of starts, then he’s highly valuable.

    Don’t forget that he was 2nd in the rotation in ERA, 2nd in WHIP, and 2nd in Innings. It’s not as if he was the only one to stumble through parts of the season this year. Cole’s HR rate increase by 2.5. Taillon and Kuhl had significant stretches worse than Nova’s. Then there was Glasnow… Ohhhh, Glasnow. Throw in Williams’ consistent season that saw him steadily improve as the season went on, and Nova was probably our #3 starter last year!

    Perhaps Kuhl has more potential and Glasnow has a higher ceiling, but until then, we NEED Nova.

  8. Bob Stover // October 23, 2017 at 1:27 PM //

    I love the dispassionate, objective and analytical approach that you took to the mystery of what happened to Ivan Nova. His workload in the first third of the season was astronomical, with a couple of complete games thrown in. C.H., who probably pulls his starters earlier than most NL managers, seemed to make exceptions for Nova. So long as the results were good, as they were for his first dozen or so starts, no one questioned the usage rate with Nova.

    You are probably exactly right to suggest that the lowering of his arm slot was a combination of both fatigue and injury. Learning bad habits is much easier than unlearning them. We can only hope that Nova is able to watch enough film to get a feel for his old arm slot and then to replicate it by repetition in Spring Training. I would not be at all surprised to see him getting the hook after 6 innings on good days, and after 4 or 5 on days where he doesn’t have good command. Going 7-9 innings in the future should be only an occasional thing when he is having an exceptionally commanding performance with a pitch count over 7-9 innings that is less than or equal to his 5-6 inning average pitch counts.

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