(This year he really was Ivan The Terrible)
Last week I looked at Robinson Cano's disconcerting decline in production against left-handed pitching this past season, and what might have been the cause for the change. This week I'd like to do the same thing with another negative 2012 trend, that being Ivan Nova's insanely high number of extra base hits allowed.
Hopes were high for Nova in 2012 after his strong finish to 2011. And in plain English he just flat out sucked this season. There's no other way to say it. Despite setting new career bests in starts (28), IP (170.1), K rate (20.5%, 8.08/9), and BB rate (7.5%, 2.96/9), Nova's season was defined by his 5.02/4.60 ERA/FIP split and the never-ending barrage of XBH flying off of opposing bats that led to those high values. Nova's 87 XBH allowed were head and shoulders above his closest competition, not the type of league-leading black ink you want on your stats ledger, but the changes in his K and BB numbers suggests this shouldn't have been the case. So what the hell happened to Ivan this year that he became a glorified BP pitcher while seemingly improving his stuff and command?
Not surprisingly, it starts off with the fastball. While Nova threw his 4-seamer less in 2012 than in his previous 2 seasons, working in his curveball and slider more often, the effectiveness of the pitch absolutely plummeted. According to FanGraphs' PITCHf/x tracking, Nova threw his 4-seamer 49.8% of the time in 2012, with the pitch registering at a -20.0 on the pitch value scale. That equates to a very, very hittable fastball, and the location chart for the fastballs thrown by Nova over the course of the season speaks to that:
Yeah, that's a lot of pitches and it looks muddled, but take notice of where the patches of white space are on this plot. The bulk of Nova's pitches are in the middle of the strike zone, the hitting zone, with fewer pitches on the corners or on the lower or upper edges of the strike zone. Nova gave up 33 doubles, 4 triples, and 14 home runs off his 4-seamer in 2012, 51 of his 87 total XBH allowed, and when you get a look at where he was throwing the 4-seamer it's easy to see why. If you're locating your fastball primarily in the middle of the plate, you're just not going to be successful against Major League hitters.
An extension of Nova's fastball problems can be found in his early-count results. Looking at the count splits, you'll notice that the bulk of the XBH damage came early in the count, on 1-0, 0-1, or 1-1 pitches. These are primarily fastball counts, counts that will get a pitcher in trouble if he's throwing a fastball and not locating it well within the zone. An example of Nova's pitch location plot in one of these counts suggests that this was often the case with Ivan:
Again, there's a lot going on here but note all the fastballs located in the heart of the zone and then take a look at the called strike zone in the same count (0-1):
A lot of those pitches that show up in the overall strike zone plot aren't represented in the called strike plot, especially in that middle of the hitting zone. That, combined with the high number of XBH Nova gave up in those counts, suggests that these were the times that Nova was missing worst with his 4-seamer and paying for it. Texas Leaguers had Nova throwing the 4-seamer 47.8% of the time to start an at-bat, and then 54.2% of the time in 1-0 counts, 58.1% in 0-1 counts, and 51.6% in 1-1 counts. That's a lot of fastballs in a lot of fastball counts, so whether Nova was just trying to throw one for a strike or missing his spot trying to get ahead he was consistently getting bashed around because of his inability to locate the pitch on the fringes of the strike zone.
Nova's slider became an effective pitch for him this season, one that he used 12.1% of the time according to PITCHf/x. It registered the highest swing % out of the pitches that Nova used regularly (59.3%), and also the highest whiff % (21.0%), but it was also wildly inconsistent. As was the case with his 4-seamer, Nova had the tendency to be inconsistent and up with his slider location, and despite throwing it less than half the number of times he threw his curveball (his best pitch), Nova gave up just as many XBH (12) off the slider as he did his hook.
This combination of poor pitch location and tendency to be predictable with his fastball made facing Nova easier in 2012, and as the season went on hitters more than likely started sitting on pitches against him, waiting for the one they wanted to hit. Nova was essentially a 2-pitch pitcher for most of the season when he didn't have his fastball or slider working, and that lessened the effectiveness of his curveball.
Looking on the positive side of this bad season, though, there is reason to believe that Nova can turn things around. The big bump up in K rate and decrease in BB rate are signs that Nova's stuff and control DID get better in 2012, and both of those were the biggest questions about him when he came up. Nova has shown that his fastball, curveball, and slider can all be true swing-and-miss pitches when he has the feel for them, and I was very encouraged to see that, despite his overall putrid production, he didn't have a big platoon split this season. Righties hit .299/.357/.514 (.373 wOBA) off Nova with 44 XBH while lefties hit .269/.341/.508 (.361 wOBA) with 43 XBH.
To me, that suggests that Nova's approach was consistent against both groups of hitters and that he wasn't getting beaten in different ways against each group. The issue wasn't in the approach, it was in the execution, and with Nova still being a young pitcher coming into his own in the Majors I'd rather have his problem be the execution than the approach. That's not to say that Nova's approach doesn't need tinkering, as evidenced by his early count numbers, but there's reason to expect that with some tightening of the mechanics and more repetition with his improving offspeed stuff, Nova can overcome this issue.
When you give up the kind of XBH totals that Nova did in 2012, there's obviously going to be some bad BABIP luck in there somewhere. But in looking at the numbers and pitch locations, it's clear that the bulk of the blame for his poor results belongs to Nova. He didn't execute consistently and threw too many hittable pitches in hitters' counts. But based on his K and BB numbers, this was not a case of a guy just not having the stuff to get it done, but rather a case of a young pitcher still learning to harness his stuff, a classic instance of "control vs. command." Nova's 2012 was awful, but with some refinement to his pitch selection and mechanics there's a very good chance he could bounce back in 2013. If the improvement in his raw stuff proves to be real, he could have an even better year next season than he did in 2011.
(All charts courtesy of Texas Leaguers)