While you were busy paying so much attention to Michael Pineda’s velocity, another Yankees’ pitcher has had a miserable spring. It might have passed unnoticed, but then there’s the small problem that this pitcher in question—Ivan Nova—won 16 games for the Yankees last season (including a streak where he didn’t lose in nine starts), becoming their number two starter in the postseason. Younger than Phil Hughes, though never as highly rated a prospect, Nova should have the best years of his career ahead of him.
Say what you will about spring training stats, but an ERA close to seven prior to today’s start isn’t good. It doesn’t matter that these games count for nothing; by this point in the spring one would expect any decent, non-injured pitcher to have fully shaken off the rust. The regular season starts in less than five days (well, not including the Japan games, but that’s besides the point), and it’s no longer good enough to be getting in shape; pitchers and position players should theoretically be good to go now.
Yankees fans might remember that Nova ended last season with a forearm strain; the injury was not a severe one but there’s a reason arm injuries in pitchers inspire so much discomfort. Unlike Pineda, Nova’s arm injury was known to the Yankees’ staff, so one would think if this was another injury scenario, the team would have been on top of it.
One can take the sabermetric route and take a look at Nova’s previous peripherals, noting his low strikeout rate and high ground ball rate, and surmise such a pitcher would be heavily dependent on the defense behind him, but jokes about Derek Jeter aside, the Yankees’ defense shouldn’t have fallen off a cliff between October and now. At any rate, faults of ERA aside, a number approaching seven can’t be explained away by luck or defense. At some point, it’s just bad pitching.
There’s an argument that Nova isn’t as crucial to the rotation as, say, CC Sabathia or even a healthy Pineda, but even if Nova isn’t the staff ace, the Yankees can’t afford to have him pitch this poorly during the season—after all, there is no written guarantee that Andy Pettitte’s return will be flawless (as much as it is our dearest wish) or that Hughes really has turned things around, never mind whether two weeks’ rest can magically restore Pineda’s lost velocity. As always, depth remains a fantastic thing until one has to use it.
Of course, it’s easy to say that everyone simply got caught up in Nova’s win total and winning streak last season, but he pitched well by a number of measures after his return to the majors in July. There seems to be little sign that his spring would have gone this poorly; last season’s success and the spotlight on Pineda has given Nova some leeway this spring, but now that it’s April the “it’s only spring training” excuses can’t hold much water.
The Yankees, on paper at least, were supposed to be the best team in the AL East going into the 2012 season, primarily because of their re-made pitching rotation, but it won’t do them a lot of good unless the hurlers come through as advertised.