PITTSBURGH – Ivan Nova had both his strengths and his flaws on display tonight, throwing seven effective innings while earning his first win in his Pirates debut, a 5-3 victory over the Cincinnati Reds tonight at PNC Park.
Nova worked consistently in the zone, throwing 56 of his 76 pitches for strikes, and getting ground balls on 9 of his 19 balls in play (47%). He gave up six hits with no walks, and retired 11 batters in a row between the second and sixth innings.
“Pitch efficiency was at the top of the list; downhill angle, no walks, good rhythm and pace,“ Clint Hurdle said regarding Nova’s effectiveness tonight. “I thought the [pitch] mix was really consistent and good.”
Nova worked primarily with his two-seam fastball (33 pitches) and curveball (23), generating five swinging strikes with each. He also worked in his four-seam fastball (14) and changeup (5), and threw one slider.
“That’s just a real quality two-seam fastball,” said Hurdle. “[It] looks like a fastball coming in, middle third, maybe thigh-high, and just shoots down-and-in [to right-handed batters].”
The two-seam has been Nova’s most used (52.3%) and most effective pitch this season, and given the Pirates’ emphasis on two-seam fastballs, it would be reasonable to expect that usage rate to continue.
Despite the positive signs this evening, Nova continues to be plagued by the long ball, allowing two solo home runs to Brandon Phillips in the second and seventh innings.
“I fell behind in the count and tried to go inside,” Nova said of Phillips’ first home run, which was hit off a 91 MPH two-seam fastball. “It stayed up and he was waiting for it.”
A similar experience played out in the seventh, when Phillips turned around what appeared to be a flat 87 MPH changeup for his second home run. The pitch appeared to be thrown to essentially the same spot as the one Phillips had previously hit into the left field seats.
Two of Nova’s other fly balls were hit to some of the deeper parts of PNC Park, and may have gone for home runs at more hitter-friendly locales, such as Yankee Stadium, where Nova previously had quite a bit of home run trouble.
The 40% HR/FB rate this evening is certainly a concern, and the difference tonight between Nova’s FIP (5.41) and xFIP (2.89) demonstrates how severe the consequences can be for pitchers with extreme home run rates.
This scenario is not unlike that of another right-handed, two-seam throwing former Yankee of recent Pirates history, A.J. Burnett. Burnett saw his ground ball rate go up (49.2% to 56.9%) and his home run rate go down (17.1% to 12.7%) in his first year with the Pirates, and maintained that improvement the following year (56.5% GB; 9.1% HR/FB).
OFFENSE DOES ENOUGH; KANG SHINES AS REPLACEMENT
Pirates hitters reached base in 13 of their first 27 plate appearances, scoring their five runs by the end of the fourth inning. Cincinnati helped the cause by issuing two hit batsmen, one wild pitch, and a throwing error by 3B Eugenio Suarez that allowed Josh Harrison to move from first to second on an infield single.
Consistent with their recent offensive struggles, the Pirates went cold over the final four innings, striking out five times, and not putting a single hitter on base after the fourth inning.
After Phillips’ home run in the seventh made the score 5-3, the Reds threatened again in the eight against Neftali Feliz. A leadoff walk followed by a single had runners at first and second, but replacement 3B Jung-ho Kang snared a Billy Hamilton ground ball down the line to start a 5-4 double play that effectively neutralized the Reds’ momentum.
Tony Watson came on in the ninth to notch his second save of the season, handling the Reds’ 3-4-5 hitters in order, and finishing the game by striking out Phillips on three pitches.
- David Freese was removed from the game after the sixth inning with left elbow discomfort after being hit by a pitch on his left arm in the third.
- Adam Frazier struck out against Jumbo Diaz in his only plate appearance after entering the game as a defensive replacement in the eighth inning.
- Ivan Nova’s start makes him the 12th starting pitcher and 48th player the Pirates have used this season. The franchise record for starting pitchers is 18 in 1996, and the 2011 team set the franchise record with 52 different players making at least one appearance.