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June 11, 2012

Painting the Black

Going Backward to Move Forward

by R.J. Anderson

Jay-Z once said, “Loiterers should be arrested.” Does Ivan Nova feel the same way? The transitive property—Nova and Jay-Z both attend plenty of Yankees games—suggests that he might; so too does Nova’s unwavering commitment to self-improvement. ESPN’s Jorge Arangure Jr. detailed Nova’s upbringing earlier this season and concluded that the pitcher’s success is miraculous. Not often does a gangly strike-thrower’s evolution merit talk about divine intervention, but then, not often does a story play out as the one Nova is writing.  Consider Nova’s unlikely ascent: from a failed Rule 5 pick to major-league starter that went 20 regular season starts between losses within three years.

How do you explain Nova’s rise without backfitting a narrative to results? The handy explanation is that Nova worked harder than the other players did. Convenient, but difficult to buy into because countless players work hard and never find success. One attribute that does help explain Nova’s success is an uncanny ability to adapt. Arangure included a story about Nova’s first time with the cutter. Here is the notable anecdote:

"When I saw him throw it, he could do it so easy," [Billy] Connors said. "I told him, 'This is really going to help you win some ballgames.' You see guys throw it; a lot of guys can't do it because it backs up on them. Nova, the first time he did it, it broke the right way and that's what I was impressed with."

Quick processing, physical or otherwise, can be invaluable to a pitcher. The Yankees are hoping Nova takes to mastering his changeup as quickly as he took to the slider. Arangure relays that pitching coach Larry Rothschild has worked with Nova on improving his change throughout the early portions of this season. Another aspect Rothschild is influencing is Nova’s pitch selection, early and late in the count.

Last season, Nova greeted batters with first-pitch fastballs 71 percent of the time.  Occasionally he would mix in a secondary pitch to keep batters off balance, but he relied upon the fastball to get ahead. Nova is still throwing mostly fastballs this season (57 percent), but he is now complementing the heat by throwing 28 percent first-pitch curveballs. For perspective, James Shields reinvented himself in 2011 by pitching backward, off his curveball and changeup. In doing so, Shields threw 25 percent first-pitch curves.

Sometimes, a change in pitch selection is nothing more than a coincidence, especially within a small sample; however, that is not the case with Nova. A team source confirmed that Nova’s gameplan change is a “conscious decision” on the part of Rothschild and the pitcher.  “Larry’s goal was two-fold,” the source said. “One: to get away from the fastball fastball-heavy approach given that the league is basically hitting .400 when making contact with his fastball,” the source explained, “and two: to make Nova less predictable.”

Knowing that Nova is pitching backward with purpose changes the dynamic of his pitch selection throughout the season. In April, Nova used first-pitch curves 24 percent of the time; in May, that rate went up to 30 percent; and, in his single June start, he threw 32 percent. Opponents had an aggregate OPS over .900 against Nova in both months, meaning more tweaking might be necessary. But is pitching backward a likely panacea for what ails Nova?

It takes a special kind of pitcher to throw strikes with his secondary stuff, and even more special pitcher to reuse those pitches late in counts as out pitches. Throwing a curveball for a strike is more difficult than throwing a fastball for a strike, meaning the chances of falling behind increase. There is upside to throwing junk early in the count, as batters are hesitant to swing at curves unless they have to—either by deception or by the count. So far, consider it a positive that Nova is throwing about as many first-pitch strikes as he did last season.

Whether Nova will be more successful long-term with his new approach is an unanswerable question. There isn’t a correlation between pitching backward and being a better pitcher; besides, the other part of this equation is how Nova makes up for his early-count curveball usage when trying to put a batter away. For the time being, Nova’s working solution seems to be using a one-two punch of his curveball and cutter-slider hybrid.

Commanding a breaking ball tends to come down to two phases: throwing the pitch for a strike and throwing the pitch in the dirt. Nova can do both with his curveball. As for the cutter-slider hybrid, batters seem to pound the pitch into the dirt or miss entirely when Nova places the pitch well. But PITCHf/x data tells that four of Nova’s 13 home runs allowed have come on the cutter-slider, with another four coming on poor changeups.

Much like the aforementioned Jay-Z, who changed with the times in order to stay on top, Nova will have to undergo a metamorphosis of his own. You can almost hear Nova rapping Jay-Z’s line, “Y’all should be afraid of what I’m gonna do next.” The only question is, does he mean Yankee fans, or their foes? 

R.J. Anderson is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see R.J.'s other articles. You can contact R.J. by clicking here

Related Content:  James Shields,  Ivan Nova,  Jay-Z

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