Ivan Nova Has Been Elite Since Joining the Pittsburgh Pirates
After a mostly average career during his time with the New York Yankees, Ivan Nova was sent packing to the Pittsburgh Pirates at the 2016 non-waiver trade deadline. While the Pirates ended up dealing two pretty solid prospects, they're probably ecstatic with their investment in the right-hander so far.
What's happened since the deal that's made Nova one of the league's best strike-throwers at this point?
An Incredible Transformation
The sample sizes between his time in New York and Pittsburgh is quite uneven, but it's not hard to see how much of a different pitcher he's become in such a short period of time. The below table compared his performance in ERA+ (100-plus is above average), Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) and his walks allowed per nine innings (BB/9) between the two clubs.
He has clearly made legitimate strides as a pitcher and the difference is so stark that it's almost unbelievable.
It seems as if the key to his success has been a drastic improvement to his control, which positively impacts each of the above statistics. But he's not only barely walking anyone -- he's barely even giving them an opportunity to walk.
Since joining the @Pirates, Ivan Nova has thrown only 3.5 percent of his pitches in 3-ball counts (tops among @MLB qualifiers in that span). pic.twitter.com/APJ6SlBecF
— #Statcast (@statcast) April 23, 2017
How rare is his obscenely-low 1.0% walk rate to start 2017? Well, a hurler producing a walk rate below 2.0% for an entire season has only happened four times: Babe Adams in 1920 (1.7%), Bret Saberhagen in 1994 (1.9%), Carlos Silva in 2005 (1.2%) and Phil Hughes in 2014 (1.9%). He still has a long way to go, but based off his last 91.2 innings of work, he has a good chance of joining such a group.
This opportunity is presenting itself because he's being extremely aggressive with his pitches.
A Different Style of Pitching
Despite all this success in Pittsburgh and being aggressive in the zone, Nova hasn't been racking up the strikeouts.
His career strikeout rate is 17.3%, and it's currently settled in at 14.4% this year. He's never been one to collect a lot of strikeouts, but to have the kind of success he's having -- especially with a 5.9% swinging-strike rate to start the year -- is incredible.
Avoiding three-ball counts is a lot easier upon getting ahead in the count, which Nova has been doing better than ever. His career first-strike percentage is 58.8%, but he's been getting the ball over the plate in Pittsburgh more than 65.0% of the time. And as one would imagine, he's just pounding the zone throughout at-bats -- his career zone rate (the percentage of pitches inside the strike zone) sits at 43.0%, but it's been at nearly 50.0% since last year's trade.
His heat maps give us a good indication of this shift. The below picture is from his entire career, and it's clear he always tried to keep the ball down.
This second heat map is for what he's specifically doing this season. It's pretty clear to see the difference between the two.
We always hear about the importance of getting ahead, but it's playing out right in front of our eyes in this case.
Once Nova began throwing first-pitch strikes more frequently, those pitches he puts off the plate become harder to law off since batters are already behind in the count. It's also allowing him to keep the ball in the ballpark -- his career home-run-to-fly-ball ratio is 12.9%, but it's dropped to just under 8.0% since joining the Pirates.
A Better Arsenal
This transformation is not just based off of better pitch placement, though -- the pitches themselves are mostly better than they've ever been before.
Check out the shift in pitch value when comparing his career to what he's done with the Pirates. We'll be using PITCHf/x's Pitch Values/100, which gives each offering a weighted value per 100 pitches thrown. Having a positive value is good, and having a negative one is bad.
|2016 w/ PIT||5.01||1.15||-0.11||-4.45|
His offspeed pitches have been a little inconsistent -- which could explain the lack of strikeouts -- but his fastballs have been excellent. That's probably the most important of all since he thrown it 76.2% of the time this season.
Nova's second-half dominance from 2016 landed him a three-year, $26 million contract to stay with the Pirates, and that has the potential to be a huge bargain. There is reason to believe he can continue staying this effective moving forward, as his peripheral numbers all show he's earning this excellent performance. And as usual, pitching coach Ray Searage is in the middle of it all, as Nova noted himself.
With Searage's tutelage, and his love for teaching pitchers to throw two-seamers low in the zone, there may be no stopping the new and improved Ivan Nova.