PITTSBURGH — Since Ivan Nova came to the Pirates from the New York Yankees at the trade deadline, he’s been nothing short of outstanding.
With the Pirates, Nova has made seven starts and has averaged 6.1 innings per start. He has a 2.53 ERA that’s mostly backed up by a 3.08 FIP. The numbers by themselves aren’t the big deal, though.
Since coming over from the Yankees, his ERA is down, his walks are down, his WHIP is down and his home runs are down. In a matter of weeks, Nova has gone from looking like a back-end innings-eater to a legitimate number two or three starter.
Tim Williams broke down Nova’s numbers and talked about whether he’s a serious candidate for extension here:
But I wanted to take a deeper look at why and how Nova has been able to improve so dramatically. Naturally, it starts with pitching coach Ray Searage.
Searage, of course, is known as something of a pitching guru that has turned around the careers of at least a half-dozen major league pitchers with the Pirates. A.J. Burnett, J.A. Happ, Francisco Liriano and Edinson Volquez — just to name a few — all saw revitalization under the Pirates’ pitching coach.
Searage said that he has made some minor mechanical tweaks to Nova, but that not all of the credit for his success in Pittsburgh lies at his feet.
The first few starts with a new pitcher, Searage stays in information-gathering mode. He watches the starts and compares video of what the pitcher looks like at that time to the way he has looked in the past, looks for exploitable trends in pitch usage and sequencing and gets a feel for the makeup of the player and how resistant or desirous to change he will be.
“You don’t want to dog-pile him and smother him,” Searage said. “What we need to do is just take a look at him. I like [watching pitching] live. I also like video — it serves its purpose. But watching them, the timing and everything that goes through it is a better indicator for me.”
So Nova’s first three starts — including his worst, a four-run, four-inning outing in San Francisco Aug. 17 — he just went out there and pitched like he had with the Yankees. Sometime after that, Searage stepped in and made some minor adjustments that have made a big impact.
“It was a couple of minor changes in his delivery with his head — keeping his head on his target and keeping his chin down,” Searage said. “Then he was starting his curveball too soon. He’s got experience. He has a pretty good idea [of what he needs to do]. After a couple of bullpens and a couple of games, it was easy to see where the fix needed to be.”
The Pirates also have Nova throwing more changeups and almost no cutters. Since that start against the Giants, Nova has been essentially un-hittable, with a 1.50 ERA and a 0.73 WHIP. He’s walked just two batters in his last 30 innings and has pitched two complete games. But Nova gave even more credit to his overall mindset and comfort level since coming over from the Pirates. His shift towards the two-seam fastball and away from the cutter has given him the confidence to work in the strike zone more, leading to reduced walks.
“It’s think the way I’ve approached things and being aggressive in the strike zone with the hitters,” he said.
Nova also pointed out what he said could have been even a bigger source of his improvement: the quality catching and his relationship with Francisco Cervelli. Cervelli and Nova both came up through the Yankees’ system and have known each other for more than a decade.
Nova contributed his early success with the Pirates to the catching of Cervelli, both his pitch-framing, game calling and overall level of comfort.
“I know that guy really well. He’s a good friend of mine,” Nova said. “Even after he left the Yankees, we were still communicating. He’s a great catcher and I’m happy to be here with him. You feel more comfortable pitching to a guy that you’ve known for so long and I’ve know him a lot, so it definitely helped.”
It just so happens that the poor start in San Francisco was one of two games Nova has thrown to Eric Fryer, and the last game he threw to Fryer, so he may be on to something. Nova also added that he almost never shakes off his catchers. Cervelli agreed.
“Yeah, because his game has to be simple: down, down, down, down, down,” Cervelli said. “We’ve been together since 2013. I know that guy very well.”
I asked Cervelli how Nova’s strong month-and-a-half compare with some of his best seasons in New York.
“The only difference is he’s more mature,” Cervelli said. “He’s been throwing the ball down, working quick, bouncing the curveballs and when he needs a ground ball, he just makes the pitch [with the two-seamer]. It’s been really good.”
Cervelli also added that Nova’s arsenal seems to be tailor-made for the Pirates preferred way of pitching by getting quick outs, working quickly to keep his defense engaged and leaning on his two-seamer to cut down on walks:
“I was waiting for him to come here.”