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A new ‘Big Game’ in town

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Iván Nova brings a veteran presence, and a modest diet of innings, to the South Side

Atlanta Braves v Pittsburgh Pirates
Hungry Man: His appetite for innings isn’t as great as the man he replaced, but Iván Nova is shooting for 30 starts at 6 IP per.
Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Carlos Rodon is 26, and Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez are both 24, and all of loads of talent. But none of them have never pitched in October.

Ivan Nova comes to this very young and inexperienced pitching rotation with nine years of MLB experience. That includes being on five New York Yankees playoff teams, and playoff game action in 2011. In short, Nova is the new and much better James Shields, and will take on the role of mentor for Chicago White Sox starting pitchers.

You all already know this. You know that Nova is on the South Side for a veteran presence. But if the Sox truly are trying to accelerate the rebuild, what will Nova provide on the mound in 2019?

Veteran move, eh?

Fastball

Since Nova’s rookie year, and more so since 2017, Nova repeatedly has changed his pitching arsenal and pitch usage. Based off of his 2018 pitch usage, Nova is now a four-pitch pitcher.

First off, the fastball. Nova’s fastball use has fluctuated since his rookie season in 2010. It topped out at 64.2%, and bottomed out at 13.4% in 2016. This past season, Nova has started to revert back to his fastball, with 31.9% usage in 2018. Usually a pitcher stops using his fastball when its velocity takes a precipitous dip, as in the case of James Shields. Nova’s 2018 fastball speed remains in the 93-94 mph range that it has sat in since his rookie season. Actually, his fastball in 2018 was the fastest it had been (on average) since 2015. Though the fastball has never been valued as Nova’s best pitch, it has made massive strides the past three seasons.

In terms of value, Nova’s fastball hit a career low in 2016, with a -2.27 pitch value per 100 pitches (PV/100), the same year he only used it 13.4% of the time. In 2017, it improved to -1.24 PV/100. The 2018 saw Nova’s best fastball since 2013 with the Yankees, as it improved again, to -0.39 PV/100. Though it is still rated as an overall negative pitch, Nova’s fastball has drastically improved. In 2016, opponents against his fastball hit a whopping 203 wRC+. That is, well, beyond horrible. A 203 wRC+ basically means every time Nova used his fastball in 2016, Babe Ruth (197 career wRC+) was hitting against him. In 2018, Nova’s fastball wRC+ improved to 127 — still not a good number, but that is more like facing Paul Konerko (118 career wRC+). Sorry, White Sox fans, but Babe Ruth is better than Paulie.

Curve

Unlike his fastball, Nova’s curve has been used relatively steadily. At this point in Nova’s career, it is his third pitch, with 22% usage and averaging about 81 mph. Lately, the curveball has been Nova’s best pitch, as it has been rated as a positive the past two years. No other pitch in Nova’s arsenal was positive in 2017 and 2018, and boy, was the curve a good one. In 2017, opponents slashed .152/.182/.268 for a 24 wRC+. In 2018 it was much of the same, with a .153/.264/.277 slash line for a 23 wRC+. Usually, I would find a comparison, but no actual hitter is that bad (even 2017 Adam Engel had a 38 wRC+). Though Nova’s curve fell to a 15.2% swinging strike rate, his lowest mark since 2015, the bender has and will be his strikeout pitch — and you can see why in the video above.

Sinker

Nova started to use a sinker in his fourth season in the majors, and has been his most-used pitch since. At 35% usage and running at 93 mph, it has historically been better than his fastball. Like any productive sinker, Nova predominantly throws it in the lower half of the strike zone.

Nova’s sinker placement against lefties in 2018.
FanGraphs
Nova’s sinker placement against righties in 2018.
FanGraphs

Unfortunately, the sinker lost some of its luster last season. Batters had a much better time seeing the pitch, as it allowed a 141 wRC+, Nova’s worst mark since 2014. That means every time Nova used his sinker, batters were basically future White Sox Bryce Harper (140 wRC+).

Additionally, the ISO against the sinker rose to .197, again, Nova’s worst mark since 2014. Why was the sinker so bad? Well, fly balls allowed were up to 19.5%, and it what seems to be a common theme, it was Nova’s worst mark since 2014. Even worse, Nova’s HR/FB rate was a career-worst 25.6%. So more fly balls and more home runs, well, that’s not a good result for the pitch Nova relies on the most.

But DJ, contact percentage in the zone is down to a career-low (90.7%), and the sinker’s swinging strike percentage is at a career high (7.3%). Well the heat maps below show that Nova’s sinker in 2018 allowed much better contact for hitters, especially in the zone.

Nova’s ISO per pitch, with 2017 on the left, 2018 on the right.
FanGraphs

Changeup

Nova’s worst pitch is his changeup, which has steadily climbed in usage in the past three years (to 12% in 2018). It has never been rated positively, and for good measure. In 2016, the batting average against Nova’s changeup was .308, and it has since climbed all the way to .343 in 2018. Along with the .343 batting average, hitters have found his change easy to barrel up, with a .229 ISO. It might not be my place to give advice to Ivan Nova, but maybe stop throwing the changeup, and dial down the sinker? I don’t know, trust in Coop, I guess.

So: Is Nova good?

Nova’s pitching arsenal as a whole is uninspiring, but uninspiring is what a third or fourth starter on a team coming off of 100 losses is allowed to be. The past three seasons have been an improvement compared to Nova’s final years in New York, but there has been a steady decline. Nova’s expected FIP has gone from 3.70 in 2016 to 4.28 in 2018. His strikeouts, even though he has never been a strikeout pitcher, have fallen. Nova is walking slightly more batters, but his rate (fewer than 2 BB/9) is still much better than it was in his early career. Nova also allows too many home runs, with just about 1.5 HR/9 and a 15% HR/FB rate.

Nova has never been an innings eater, which is contrary to what some are telling you. His career high in innings pitched is 187, and Nova has only made 30 or more starts once in his career.

So is Nova good? The short answer is: He is a fourth starter. You will be happy with the results of just more than half of his starts. Is that good? Eh. For Yordi Rosario and international bonus pool money the White Sox weren’t going to use, it’s good enough.