Sleeper Spotlight: Can Ivan Nova Regain His 2011 Form?

by Dave De Wit

In 2012 Ivan Nova was a “Super-Nova.” Not “super” as in good, but an actual supernova, the large stellar explosion. After a promising full-season debut in 2011 in which he posted a 3.70 ERA, Nova was a big star. Unfortunately this big star’s core collapsed, causing a huge explosion which blasted the star’s material out at speeds up to 10 times the speed of light! OK, the metaphor falls apart a little bit, but you get the picture—he sucked last year.

Nova was so bad that there have been early reports out of the Yankees camp that he would be competing with David Phelps for the final spot in the starting rotation. However, with Phil Hughes questionable for the start of the season with back issues and Phelps’ success last year as a reliever, Nova looks to be a shoe-in for a spot in the rotation in 2013. Unless of course, he repeats his horrendous numbers from 2012.

Here are his 2012 stats (with the 2011 stats for comparison):

12 Wins (16 Wins)
170.1 Innings (165.1 Innings)
5.02 ERA (3.70 ERA)
1.47 WHIP (1.33 WHIP)
153 Strikeouts – 8.08 K/9 (98 Strikeouts – 5.33 K/9)
56 Walks – 2.96 BB/9 (57 Walks 3.10 BB/9)
.331 BABIP (.283 BABIP)
72.5% Strand Rate (73.2% Strand Rate)

It’s hard to believe those numbers came from the same pitcher. Such a marked difference in ERA and BABIP isn’t unprecedented, but for those numbers to balloon while his strikeout rate improved so greatly is remarkable. Pitchers don’t just luck into Ks, this is a skill that Nova has developed and can maintain going forward

In 2011 Nova struck out just 13.9% of the batters he faced, which gave him the 79th best K% among qualified starters (only 15 starters were worse). In 2012 he improved his K% to 20.5%, which was 35th best in the league. He also shrunk his walk rate from 8.1% in 2011 to 7.5% in 2012. With an advancing strikeout rate and receding walk rate, how on earth did the Super Nova’s ERA sky-rocket? It was because of his high BABIP and home run totals.

Nova’s BABIP jumped nearly 50 points from .283 in 2011 to .331 in 2012! That increase was brought on from a spike in Nova’s line drive rate (from 18% to 22%) and a dip in his ground ball rate (from 53% down to 45%). Given that he has less than 400 big league innings under his belt, there’s not too much we can glean from these numbers since we don’t know exactly what kind of pitcher he is yet. Line drive rates tend to fluctuate from year to year, but typically ground ball rates don’t change so drastically. Most likely these rates will fall somewhere between his first two seasons and lead to BABIP in the middle as well, closer to the league average.

As for the long ball, Nova allowed just 13 home runs in 2011. That number more than doubled in 2012 as gave up 28 dingers in roughly the same amount of innings. Sure the homer-happy Yankee Stadium didn’t help, but he still served up 14 bombs on the road last year.

Nova didn’t give up a ton of fly balls—his 32% fly ball rate put him toward the low end of pitchers—instead all these gopher balls came thanks to a home run to fly ball rate that doubled from 8% in 2011 to 16% last year, the third highest HR/FB rate among qualified starters in 2012. Since a pitcher’s HR/FB doesn’t have a strong correlation from year to year, it’s safe to assume that he will regress to the mean in the home run department as well.

Because of his terrible 2012 season and the increasingly pathetic-looking New York Yankees line-up, Ivan Nova will be a cheap late-round pick in mixed leagues.  With his improved skills and a regression to normal luck, he can produce at a valuable level. His realistic upside puts him at an Anibal Sanchez level, and if he lays an egg again in 2013 it won’t be too detrimental to your team given his low cost. Take a chance on Ivan Nova and see if his star can shine bright once again.

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