On Saturday, Ivan Nova gave us 2.0 innings of one hit baseball to think about. For the most part, Nova was hitting spots like a lunatic, 22 of his 27 pitches were strikes, and the one hit he gave up was an infield single off the end of his own glove. Weak contact is something that Nova grew unaccustomed to in 2012. His 16.6 HR/FB% was the fourth highest rate of all qualifying pitchers last season. It wasn't always like that though, in 2010 and 2011, Nova's home run rate was half of what we saw in 2012, and his groundball rate was 6% to 7% higher. It wasn't only contact rates that made Nova look like a different pitcher, but his strikeouts sky rocketed from 13.9% in 2011 to 20.5% in 2012. While the walk rates also took a step back, Nova somehow evolved into a strikeout pitcher, and that wasn't necessarily a good thing.
Now Nova and the Yankees are looking to find the 2011 pitcher, rather than his 2012 counterpart. The right-hander still has a strong curveball and slider, but on Saturday, his four-seam fastball resembled what we saw prior to last season. The fastball looked to have a tremendous amount of sinking movement, and the four ground balls he earned speak to the change in the fastball's movement.
In 2012, Nova' four-seam earned a 10% ground ball rate with a 6.5% fly ball rate. While these ground ball rates are actually high for a four-seam fastball, his rates in 2012 were closer to 13% ground balls and 6% fly balls. Though the difference in fly ball rates is insignificantly different, one might assume that the fact that more ground balls and less line drives were hit off the pitch means weaker contact and less home runs. Assume all you want, because Nova's home run rate on the four-seam doubled from 2011 to 2012.
To summarize the difference between the two seasons, it's stronger secondary pitches in 2012, but a weaker fastball. If Nova had been able to keep the strikeout numbers he saw on the slider and curveball last year, while maintaining his 2011 fastball, he would have impressed. Of course that didn't happen, and the pitch that he threw 53% of the time saw major regression.
“It was just finding the right arm slot. He had such a long arm motion last year, it’s tough to repeat it if you’re not fully confident in it. This year, he’s a lot shorter so he can repeat it a lot easier and we saw the results today. … Hopefully, he’s the guy (the Yankees) saw two years ago. The one going out there with confidence every single day and not afraid of throwing strikes and daring people to try to hit them. We saw that a little bit last year. I kind of fell off at the end, but he’s got the stuff, obviously it’s just a matter of putting it together. If he can do what he did today, he’s going to be real good.”
There's no doubt that Nova was more aggressive in Saturday's start, especially with his 22 strikes out of 27 pitches. The real question is what kind of mechanical changes he made this offseason. Since Stewart spoke about shortening his arm motion, I decided to concentrate on that.
I timed these two videos down to the release of the pitch. One of the clips is from his last start of 2012, and the other from Saturday's game. I also slowed it down considerably so that you can see the minute difference in his arm movement. Seriously, it's the matter of two to three frames, and in terms of time it's one tenth of a second. That's the only difference you need though, because you can clearly see how Nova brings his arm into position faster. Look at how much later he begins cocking his arm, while the stride remains virtually the same.
Overall, it seems the Yankees and Nova believe this may lend to a more consistent release point. It also looks like he might be throwing with a slightly lower arm slight than 2012, but I'd like to see a few more starts and some PITCHf/x data first. If this works, Nova's four-seam fastball could return to an impressive ground ball pitch, and if he maintains his slider and curveball from 2012, there's a lot to like about his repertoire.