TAMPA, Fla. — At the end of his three-inning scoreless outing on Monday against the Washington Nationals, Yankees starting pitcher Ivan Nova needed to throw 10 or so more pitches in the bullpen in order to reach his scheduled workload for the day.
Nova hardly broken a sweat as he cruised through his efficient four-strikeout effort. After the bullpen session, Nova then ran a couple miles on one of the fields adjacent to Steinbrenner Field. It was only then that he felt taxed. When he arrived in the clubhouse, Nova asked reporters if he could conduct his interview while sitting, because all the running around had finally tired his legs.
Spring training is famously known for its statistical anomalies — the players who excelled and then were never heard from again, the guys who slumped and then went on to have stellar seasons. Anyone can be good, or bad, in a short sample against lesser competition — rosters inflated with minor leaguers — that it means relatively nothing. But for Nova to throw 31 of his 36 pitches for strikes on Monday was something of a revelation for a guy whose consistency has always been in question.
In his four seasons with the Yankees, the 27-year-old Nova has either been a non prospect (4.50 ERA as a rookie in 2010), a promising young player (3.70 ERA in his first full season), an incredible disappointment (5.02 ERA in 2012), or the Yankees best pitcher in the second half last year (3.10 ERA). He almost goes beyond categorization. Nobody really knows what to make of him.
Yet with Andy Pettitte’s retirement, CC Sabathia’s decreased velocity, Hiroki Kuroda’s age (39) and Masahiro Tanaka’s inexperience, Nova may be the Yankees’ most important starting pitcher heading into the season, maybe even the team’s ace (at least initially). And with a strong start to the spring, Nova, perhaps for the first time, could finally be showing he’s ready to become an elite starting pitcher.
“He changes eye levels, he does so many good things,” new Yankees catcher Brian McCann said. “Today’s outing was beyond impressive…There is no ceiling on a guy like him. He can do whatever he wants. If gets into a groove, he can ride it out for a full season.”
Of course, riding something out for a full season is not something Nova has been able to do. After early season struggles last year, including an elbow injury, the Yankees sent Nova down to Triple-A — a harsh blow for the pitcher. But he understood he needed to improve. And he did so. After being reinstated into the Yankees rotation on June 23, Nova posted a 2.70 ERA for the rest of the season.
“Physically I’m fine,” Nova said about some of his past troubles. “Sometimes the game is hard. And when you’re young, especially when you’re playing in New York, you try to do the best every time… Sometimes you put pressure on your shoulders when you don’t have to. I think it’s more mental than physical.”
To ensure more consistency, the Yankees are trying to have Nova improve his changeup, a pitch he threw just 2.5 percent of the time last year, according to Pitch F/X data. Nova’s 80.4 mph offspeed pitch rather than his 85.6 mph curveball was a much more effective counter to his 93.2 mph fastball.
On Monday, Nova had success with the changeup — and has also been trying to tighten up his curve.
“I threw a couple I really liked and it was coming out more like a fastball, cutting sharp and quick,” Nova said. “I struck out two guys without bouncing it and that’s good, that means it was breaking fast and short. That’s what you want.”
McCann said he’s never quite caught anyone like the 6-foot-7 Nova, whose size can be imposing for opposing hitters.
“He’s able to get tilt on his fastball,” McCann said. “He uses all of his 6-foot-7 frame to get that downhill plane. When he throws a ball in the zone he’s very hard to square up.”
Nova said that he has set several goals for himself this season, but he declined to reveal them for fear of getting branded as being too bold. Should he falter this year, everyone will want to point out the lofty aspirations he set for himself. But he, along with most everyone at Yankee camp, has begun to realize that this could be a very special season for him, even though success at this time of the year can mean nothing. For now, it means everything.
“Good things are going to come for him for sure,” McCann said. “He has all the makeup, all the stuff to be a top-of-the-rotation starter.”