Why Ivan Nova Isn’t Phil Hughes 2.0

This is Alex Stumpf’s first piece as part of his May residency at FanGraphs. Stumpf covers the Pirates and also Duquesne basketball for The Point of Pittsburgh. You can find him on Twitter, as well.

With one month of the season in the books, the Ivan Nova signing has been the steal of the offseason.

After performing a career 180 following his trade to the Pirates from the Yankees at the deadline last year, Nova has become even more Nova-y in 2017, recording a 1.50 ERA over 36 innings, refusing to walk batters, and working at a record-setting pace.

His 95-pitch Maddux* on Saturday night was his fifth complete game in 16 outings as a Pirate. In that stretch of 100.2 innings, he has faced 396 batters and walked only four, including just one out of the 133 who stepped into the box this season. The last starter to go at least 100 innings in a season with a lower walk rate per nine was George Bradley in 1880. That was the year the number of balls required for a walk was reduced to eight, and four years before pitchers were permitted to throw overhand.

*”Maddux” is a term coined by Jason Lukehart in 2012 to denote a game in which a pitcher records a shutout while throwing fewer than 100 pitches.

Nova has been pitching like he is double-parked all year, challenging hitters right out of the gate and getting a lot of outs early in the count. Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle uses the number of batters retired on three pitches or less as a barometer for a starter’s performance. Nova has done it 57 times over five starts this season. His first pitch has been a strike 66.9% of the time, and he’s in the zone on 51.3% of his offerings. He has said he isn’t afraid to throw strikes, but there’s a fine line between challenging hitters and going out there with a “hold my beer” mentality and daring them to go hacking at the first pitch. They haven’t had a lot of success coming out swinging, combining for a .111 average with a mean exit velocity of 80.6 mph off the bat on the first offering.

That has all resulted in an average of just 12.1 pitches per inning — the lowest since Stats LLC started keeping track in 1988. If Rob Manfred ever institutes a Pace of Play Hall of Fame, Nova would be a first-ballot inductee.

The biggest change between New York and Pittsburgh for Nova has been his well documented and renewed sense of confidence. Not a tweak in the mechanics, not a dash of pixie dust from Ray Searage or anyone else in the front office. Just a breather away from the Bronx bandbox and a handshake promise that he’s going to toe the rubber every five days.

“It’s very different when you know that you’re going to pitch every five days, that’s for sure,” Nova said after beating his former club April 23. “You’re not worried about what’s going to happen next. Just go out there and have fun. I think that’s one of the main things.”

Confidence is important — ask any athlete or politician — but it is also tends to be cyclical. Here was Nova just over five years ago:

Granted there was a Tommy John surgery and a couple of down years between then and when the Yankees cast him off, but it proves he’s had his share of highs and lows. There hasn’t been a true low in Pittsburgh yet. What type of pitcher could he be if that confidence is shaken? This is probably why he didn’t garner much attention in free agency despite every team foaming at the mouth for starters.

Nova isn’t the only former Yankee from the past five years who battled through injuries in New York, had trouble keeping the ball in the park, was demoted to the bullpen, went to a team in the Central devision on a three-year deal, and then stopped walking batters. Before Nova, there was Phil Hughes and his career year in 2014, when he walked just 16 batters over 209.2 innings. It was the best strikeout-to-walk ratio in baseball history. Since then, he has regressed to an often-injured back-of-the-rotation arm.

So is Nova just destined to be a reboot of Hughes, another flash in the pan who took advantage of a change of scenery for one magical year before regressing? Even if he continues to limit walks, Nova’s .224 BABIP average is bound to go up, and his ERA will probably creep closer to his 3.33 xFIP or 3.58 SIERA.

Hughes kept himself from issuing free passes in 2014 by ditching his slider and changeup, bringing back his cutter and adding some knuckle to his curve. Nova hasn’t added a pitch. He gave a scarcely used cutter the boot and, after using more offspeed stuff in Pittsburgh last year, is now throwing his heater 74% of the time. He’s sticking with what got him into the majors, with the exception of a long-abandoned slider.

And that’s the reason why the similarities between Nova and Hughes stop at the five or six I listed earlier: Nova is still Nova. Hughes isn’t. He reinvented himself in Minnesota, and after the shock value diminished and batters got an offseason to study him, he suffered through the veteran’s version of a sophomore slump. Nova showed his hand and is now back to his normal routines. He’s attacking up in the zone more often, going from 23% of all pitches to 27% , which is now within a point of his career average. He’s slowed down to within half a second of his career pace between pitches. The biggest changes are pitch efficiency related, resulting in a lower ERA and FIP, and more innings pitched. He’s getting comfortable after a much needed change in environment.

Nova is bound to regress at some point, but it probably won’t be as harsh of a fall from grace as Hughes. He was worth a win in April alone, already paying for the value of his first-year salary. Everything else from now is just gravy. A bump in the road is inevitable.

Until then, he has a blank check to be the most Nova-y Nova that ever super-Nova’d.

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Cool Lester Smoothmember
7 years ago

I think AJ Burnett is a much more apropos comparison than Hughes…which is a good thing for Nova and the Pirates!

Righties who give up hard contact in the air aren’t exactly natural fits for YSIII, but that doesn’t make them bad pitchers.

7 years ago

Certainly not the Burnett who pitched a 7 walk no-hitter though, right?

7 years ago
Reply to  SucramRenrut

That was the early Burnett. The one that hitters couldn’t touch but they didn’t really need to most of the time.