Can Ivan Nova Maintain Success?

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at Los Angeles Dodgers

This is a guest post from a  friend and fellow BBBA member,  Ricky Mears. You can find more of Ricky’s work over at Innings Pitched (full website will be launching in January 2017). Follow @InningsPitched on Twitter to stay up to date before the launch and sign up for the Newsletter. Tickets to a MLB or MILB will be given away to a follower once we reach the 200 threshold.

Ivan Nova, formerly of the New York Yankees, was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates for prospects. Like many acquired by Pittsburgh, Nova was a buy low proposition, with the hope of bouncing back.

Ivan Nova delivered, but what changed after his departure from the American League East?A.J. Burnett succeeded after making a similar shift to the National League Central. Did Nova follow a similar path?

Could Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage be the factor of consistency across the two pitchers? What exactly did the Pittsburgh Pirates change to make Ivan Nova more successful? Let’s dive into the statistics.

Pitching By The Numbers

Ivan Nova’s pitching repertoire:

  1. Four Seam Fastball (FF)
  2. Two-Seam Fastball, or Sinker (FT)
  3. Curveball (CU)
  4. Changeup (CH)
  5. Slider (SL)

A few major changes are noticeable between pitch selections from NYY to PIT.

repetoire

The usage of the curveball increased from 27.8% with the New York Yankees to 30% with the Pittsburgh Pirates. The usage of the changeup increased from 3.9% (NYY) to 6.9% (PIT). The usage of the two-seam fastball increased from 48.3% (NYY) to 54.5% (PIT). And finally, the usage of four-seam fastball decreased from 15.8% (NYY) to 7.2% (PIT).

Let’s focus on the two-seam fastball.

This Pittsburgh Pirates are consistent advocates of increasing the use of the two-seam fastball. The Pirates baseball operations department has compiled analytical research showing the difficulty of hitting the two-seam fastball.

The book Big Data Baseball: Math, Miracles, and the End of a 20-Year Losing Streak explains how the Pittsburgh Pirates organization goes to great lengths to find ideal positional shifts. The Pirates have had to exploit the numbers to make their meager budgets stretch further.

Manager Clint Hurdle eventually directed A.J. Burnett to pitch to contact. This utilized his two-seam fastball more, compared to his four-seam fastball. The team would also shift the infield, placing  defenders in a more ideal position.  Big Data Baseball is a great read for any baseball fan.

Now let’s get back to the main focus. Ivan Nova’s ground ball rate increased from 49.4% in July before the trade, to 56.6% in September. The sample size is small, but the results are apparent.

Ivan Nova’s ERA with the New York Yankees was 4.90, compared to 3.06 with the Pirates. The drop-in use of the four-seam fastball also reduced hard contact.

Nova was also directed to utilize the curveball more than he had been with New York. A noticeable directive, considering that the batting average against the curveball was 0.197.

Pitching to Contact

The Pittsburgh Pirates preach “Get ahead in the count, and pitch to contact.”

5-game rolling fstrike.png

The image above shows Ivan Nova’s 5-game rolling average of first pitch strikes. Where do you think Nova’s first start with the Pittsburg Pirates is along the game number timeline?

I refer you to the red circle. There were some hiccups after his first start, but overall the massive increase in first pitch strikes fueled him to success.

april-aug-pitch-velocity-network

Throwing a first pitch strike is not the whole story though. The pitch velocity network provided by Baseball Savant shows that Ivan Nova also made subtle changes to when he threw certain pitches.

The 0-0 velocities in the bubbles above show no statistical difference. However, 0-1 shows 89.32 mph (NYY) and 88.0 (PIT), a change of 1.32 mph. The 0-2 count, 86.82 mph (NYY) versus an 83.98 mph (PIT), a change of 2.84 mph.

What does this really tell us? Nova was relying less on his four-seam fastball and in essence learned how to actually pitch. He mixed up his offerings, attacked hitters, and was not trying to blow hitters away with his relatively underwhelming fastball. Getting ahead increased his confidence, and he no longer felt that he had to nibble at the corners. In return this means lower pitch counts, which allows the pitcher to potentially go deeper into games.

Let’s take a look at the heat maps to verify our statements:

april-july-vs-au-sept-heat-maps

The image above and to the left (NYY) shows almost 2/3 of the red clusters (high percentage of pitches), outside the strike-zone. Compare this to the image on the right, where almost 90% of the red clusters are within the strike-zone. No more nibbling, increased two-seam fastball usage, and overall less runs.

Slug percent network.png 

You can also see how this is reflected with the slugging percentages. The image above and to the left only has one bubble that is blue. This color represents a slugging percentage of less than .200. Compare this to the image on the right (PIT), where 5 bubbles are blue. Quite a stark contrast.

Nibbling the strike-zone as a pitcher rarely works. Hitter’s need to be attacked.

Did Anything Change with His Pitching Mechanics?

Often times, major changes like these can be attributed to a mechanical change.

pitching mechanics.png

Fortunately though, Ivan Nova’s mechanics remained exactly the same. The New York Yankees were doing something right with the mechanics, which means Ivan Nova may not regress massively in 2017.

Overall, Ivan Nova’s pitch repertoire mixed well with the Pittsburgh Pirates’ culture of two-seam fastballs and pitching to contact. Nova’s path to future success is with the Pittsburg Pirates, hopefully he understands this before its too late.

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