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Jan 162011

Could Nova reinvent himself...

... into a sinkerballer like Wang?

This is something I’ve been kicking around the past few days. The more I delve into Ivan Nova’s prospect profile, the more he reminds me of former Yankee Chien Ming Wang. Both had uninspiring careers in the minors, and seemed to develop late. Wang’s breakout season was at age 24 in 2004, and Nova’s came in 2010 at age 23, though it should be noted Wang missed a season due to shoulder surgery. But its the scouting reports that really got me thinking. Here’s what our own Sean P said about him over at Pending Pinstripes before last year:

Nova has a report that would make you think he would be an upper echelon type prospect. But as we’ve seen, he’s clearly not. His fastball sits 91-94 and is a plus offering due to his ability to maintain velocity throughout his starts. He also has a sinking fastball he’ll throw as well that had good movement down in the zone that he can command well and get on top of due to his size. His changeup and curveball are also plus offerings, his changeup probably more so than the curve. He has good fade and maintains solid arm action on the change up, but the curveball can be inconsistent and flattens out from time to time. Nova doesn’t always use his stuff effectively however as mentioned earlier. He doesn’t pitch aggressively and fails to put away hitters partly because he avoids pitching inside.

Both of those same things could also be said about Chien Ming Wang. Wang’s fastball averaged 92.3 MPH from 2007-09, while Nova’s averaged 92.9 MPH last year. The key to be a sinkerballer is having good depth on the fastball, and Fangraphs Vertical Movement chart has Wang at +5.4 for his career, and Nova at +6.7 last year. Both Wang and Nova would be categorized as ground ball pitchers, with Wang being an extreme version at 60.1% over the course of his 5 year career. Nova was at 51.4% last year, but I think Nova could improve upon that rate if he features the 2 seamer more often, which is a simple matter of game calling between him and his catcher.

Neither pitcher had great stats in minors, though Wang’s stats are muddied by coming back from injury whereas Ivan Nova was relatively healthy. Nova struck out 6.3/9 in the minors, while Wang struck out 7.2/9. In neither case would you expect that to translate well to the majors facing advanced hitters. Wang allowed 9.0 H/9 while Nova allowed 9.3. Both pitchers kept the ball in the yard as amateurs, with Nova posting a 0.6 HR/9 and Wang coming in at 0.4. The one area where Wang really separated himself from Nova in the minors is his walk rate. Wang had a 2.0 BB/9 in the minors and a 3.44 SO/BB rate, while Nova posted a 3.0 BB/9 in the minors and a 2.2 SO/BB rate. Biggest knock on Nova is lack of aggressiveness and failing to pitch inside, but again the same could be said of Wang. Nova will need to work a bit more in the strike zone at the MLB level if he hopes to resemble Wang’s success, but aggressiveness will be less of an issue if his goal is to generate ground balls instead of trying to miss bats.

There are also similarities in their delivery. Here’s what RABs Mike Axisa said about Nova last year:

Nova has proven to be very durable in recent years, which stems from his fluid and easily repeatable delivery. However, that delivery is a double-edged sword. It allows him to command the ball to both sides of the plate, but at the same time he completely lacks deception, so hitters get a good look at the ball before he releases it

Wang was also known for his smooth, fluid delivery which also lacked deception. But sinkerballers don’t need deception, if you locate the pitch below the belt all a batter can do is beat it into the ground. So even if they know whats coming, it really doesn’t matter.

Most prospect watchers will look at a pitcher’s results in the minors and come up with a projection. But we sometimes forget the minors are there to develop pitchers, or attempt to do so. While it’s always preferable to miss bats, Nova has the skill set to be a nice, mid to back of the rotation sinkerballer who eats loads of innings, and that’s valuable. He can effectively limit the long ball and use 2 seam fastball to generate hard, double play ground balls and the change to generate weak ones. As we saw with Wang, you can win a lot of games pitching that way on a team like the Yanks.

NOTE-The China Post is reporting Wang is on target to open the season pitching for the Nationals this season. Good for him, and I’ll be rooting for him and following his results on the 2011 edition of Keeping up with the ex-Yanks.

13 Responses to “Rethinking Ivan Nova’s Ceiling”

  1. Wang was only effective when he was throwing his sinker at 95-97 before getting hurt. Once it slowed down to 92-94 he became very hittable and was only winning because he got a ridiculous amount of run support. Unless Nova can also gain the ability to have the yankees average 7 runs per game every time he starts this post doesn’t make me feel better about Nova  (Quote)

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    Steve S. Reply:

    While I agree that Wang once had an elite, Kevin Brown-esque 2-seamer, that doesn’t mean he couldn’t pitch effectively in the low 90s. He averaged 93.7 in 2007 and had one of his best seasons.

    Also, run support is to be expected on a team like the Yanks, as they have one of the best lineups in the game. Do you think any less of Phil Hughes’ 2010 season because of the absurd run support he received?  (Quote)

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  2. If Nova is going to reinvent himself, he should aim to come back as Bob Feller.  (Quote)

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  3. I would rather him worry about keeping his curve and change up down.  (Quote)

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    Steve S. Reply:

    His curve was probably his best pitch last year. I’m not saying scrap it, just feature the 2 seamer more often.  (Quote)

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  4. Might be that the only thing Nova lacks is stamina and the ability to read the batters’s swings. I notice that he looked really good the first 1.5-2 times through the order, then he’d start to get into trouble. It could also just be the growing pains of a young pitcher having to learn to adjust in the middle of an MLB game…  (Quote)

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    Steve S. Reply:

    That, and Girardi seemed to run out there right away once he got into trouble. Didn’t let him work out of jams. So he sees something that Nova’s doing that he knows MLB hitters will eventually exploit, or sees Nova simply elevating his pitches, which isn’t going to work for him. Featuring the 2-seamer could be a recipe for double plays, which will bail him out of jams. If he’s elevating, then he needs to learn how to adjust his mechanics on the fly. Often times pitchers will use a breaking pitch (Curve/slider) to get back on track.  (Quote)

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    Kevin Ocala, Fl Reply:

    Steve, good points all. One other thing, Nova was pitching in a tight division race, it might be that Girardi didn’t want to get second-guessed on leaving a “kid” out there. But I’m just being purely speculative. Girardi is smart, observant, and those attributes kept him in the majors for a long time. Which might also mean that Mitre may turn out to be better than I have seen so far, he’s another year removed from TJ.  (Quote)

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    smurfy Reply:

    Good point, Kevin, about Mitre and the surgery. It would make sense that his recovery would be slow, since he is 30.  (Quote)

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  5. I don’t think Nova’s fastball is the problem. I’m not positive if he used a four-seamer, a two-seamer, or a combination of the two last year, but whatever it was, it was above-average at getting groundballs (56% of the time). Here are the batted ball profiles I have for Nova’s pitches last year (ground ball rate / fly ball rate / line drive rate / pop up rate):

    Fastball (98 balls in play): .561/.214/.184/.041
    Curveball (22 balls in play): .500/.364/.136/.000
    Changeup (19 balls in play): .316/.368/.263/.053

    Note that he also threw a few sliders over his first few starts, but only two were hit into play.  (Quote)

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  6. I think that we should also note that Wang’s success was incredibly rare. We correctly, I think, labeled him a huge outlier. There are a million guys who throw hard sinkers out there in the minors, but few of them translate success to the majors.

    But Wang was also really, really good. I think that if Nova keeps people from making especially hard contact, keeps his walk rate reasonable, and gets a lot of ground balls, he could stick in the majors for some time. Its easy to forget how good Nova was at Triple-A: 2.86 ERA, 3 BB/9, 7.1 K/9, 146 innings in just 23 starts. He won’t be Wang, but there’s no reason he can’t be Joe Blanton.  (Quote)

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  7. Creative, constructive thinking, Steve. One thing Ivan needs to do, as well, is grow a spine of steel. There was a moment, just before Joe pulled him in a September game, when everybody could read his failing confidence. And the opinion went south on him immediately, as did mine. That’s what he needs, whether the sinker is his path, or not. It’s a matter of will. Wang had it. And Phil is a great example: when they said you can stay and relieve, or go down and keep starting, he decided, and it showed.  (Quote)

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