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Signed RHP Ivan Nova to a three-year, $26 million contract. [12/23]
One of these things is not like the other.
The first line is Ivan Nova's performance in 94 innings with the Yankees during his comeback from Tommy John surgery in 2015. The second line is Nova again, in 97.1 innings with the Yankees in 2016. The third line is also Nova, this time in 64.2 innings with the Pirates after joining Pittsburgh at the trade deadline.
Much has been made of Ray Searage’s acumen as a pitching coach. His reputation took a hit in 2016 though, as the Pirates tumbled from second in the National League in ERA, second in FIP, and fifth in DRA in 2015 to ninth, eighth, and 11th in 2016. All three starters who returned from the 2015 squad—Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano, and Jeff Locke—backslid, and the acquisitions of Jon Niese, Ryan Vogelsong, and Juan Nicasio (as a starter, at least) didn’t pan out. Cole and Nicasio are the only members of the sextet who’ll be with the team in 2017, with Nicasio likely working out of the bullpen.
Searage’s success story for the season was Nova. Despite making only 11 starts, Nova compiled the third-highest WARP among Pirates starters, a product of the best ERA, best FIP, and third-best DRA on the team.
One other set of numbers that I should’ve included in the above table: 3.3, 4.1, 8.0. That’s Nova’s salary, in millions of dollars, in 2015, 2016, and the average annual value over the next three years. Nova signed a three-year deal to stay in Pittsburgh, with a $2 million signing bonus, three years at $24 million, and performance bonuses reportedly worth up to $2 million per year.
The key question will be whether the Nova the Pirates signed through 2019 is the one they had for two months last season or the one the Yankees had before then. Here are some more numbers, with the key differences glaringly obvious:
Not unlike other pitchers recovering from Tommy John surgery, Nova’s strikeout rate has steadily climbed, And his home run rate was undoubtedly helped by moving from Yankee Stadium (with its 122 home run park factor for right-handed batters and 114 for left-handed batters) to PNC Park (with a home run park factors of 86 for righties and 102 for lefties).
But those walks. Nova’s K/BB ratio with the Pirates was 17.3/1. From August 1, the date he was traded from the Yankees, to the end of the year, that’s the best in the majors, by far. Rick Porcello was a distant second at 9.8/1. Over that span, Nova walked three batters. During the same period, the Pirates had 15 games in which a pitcher walked at least as many batters as Nova did in two months.
Nova threw 246 balls as a Pirate among 831 pitches, so 29.6 percent of his pitches were balls. The only pitchers with more than 40 innings and a lower percentage of balls were Addison Reed (29.0 percent) and Kenley Jansen (27.7 percent). As a Yankee in 2016, 36.6 percent of Nova’s pitches were balls. The major-league average was 36.4 percent.
The point is: Nova succeeded as a Pirate in part because he played in a more favorable ballpark but mostly because he threw strikes. Lots and lots of strikes. The results he got, in terms of hits and strikeouts, weren’t all that different from what he got with the Yankees. But the reduction in walks sure helped.
How out of line is his performance? Well, his DRA with the Yankees was 3.79. His DRA with the Pirates was almost identical, 3.83. So the odds don’t favor a repeat of his Pittsburgh ERA of 3.06. But something closer to his 3.83 ERA, on a team whose starters had an ERA of 4.67 in 2016? Yeah, the Pirates would definitely take that.
The Pirates are paying for about one WARP per season. They got more than that (1.1 WARP, to be exact) in two months of Nova last year. It’s reasonable to expect them to do so in 2017 as well, even with a more terrestrial K/BB rate.