BRADENTON, Fla. – The expectation at the start of the offseason was that Ivan Nova would get a big deal on the free agent market. The market was weak, and Nova was one of the more attractive pitchers due to his final two months in 2016 after being traded to the Pirates. Nova was projected to receive 3-4 years in the $12-13 M range per year. He ended up getting three years and $26 M from the Pirates, which came as a surprise due to the expectations.
There were some theories about why the price was lower. One theory was that he didn’t have much interest, despite his strong finish in 2016. The bigger theory was that he just wanted to return to Pittsburgh. Nova confirmed the latter theory today after reporting to Pirate City for Spring Training.
“Everything I said with my agent was ‘Try to make it done with Pittsburgh’,” Nova said. “I’m more than happy. I expressed that I want to be here. It took a little bit longer to sign, but to decide to be here was huge, and that makes it easy.”
Nova said he waited for the right time to sign, and while he talked with other teams, he knew he always had the option to come to the Pirates. He had interest from “a couple of teams”, but kept things quiet and focused mostly on the Pirates.
“We were just trying to get something done here, and not worry about other teams,” Nova said. “Sometimes you can go out there and play for more money, but sometimes you don’t feel as happy as I feel here. I choose to be happy here.”
Nova said a big reason he decided to return to Pittsburgh was due to the people on the team, and his coaches.
“It’s the people you have around,” Nova said. “I feel so comfortable knowing that I have my two catchers here. The way everybody treated me here, and the pitching coach that we have. The way these guys go out there and play the game.”
The atmosphere also helps him on the mound, leading to some of his success last year. Moving from New York to Pittsburgh has helped a lot of pitchers over the last few years, and Nova elaborated on why that move helped him.
“I was relaxed,” Nova said. “Knowing you’re going to pitch today, and no matter what happens, you’re going to have another start. In New York, you don’t always have that. If you pitch a bad game, you’re either in the bullpen or the minor leagues. It’s the way they do. I think that’s the big difference, knowing that you’re going to pitch no matter what, you’re going to have the time to figure out what you did wrong, and they’re going to help you out.”
Nova stressed that pitching in New York and the American League wasn’t easy. Part of that had to do with the park factors, with Yankee Stadium being unforgiving with home runs. PNC Park is much more forgiving, which allowed Nova to attack the strike zone more often, leading to lower walk rates and lower home run totals.
“Throwing a strike and not being afraid to go after hitters [led to the low walks],” Nova said. “Not thinking too much. Just being really aggressive with the strike zone. Not every fly ball is going to be a home run. In New York, if you don’t hit it to the middle, if you hit it to the corner, that’s a homer. Even a breaking ball, that’s a homer.”
Nova went from a 21.3% HR/FB ratio in New York to a 7.8% after the trade. His ratio was always high in his career with the Yankees, leading to a 13.1% career rate. The biggest change for him was that his walk rate was low, going from 2.31 BB/9 to 0.42. That might not be sustainable for him, but it does help that he’s pitching in the zone more often, throwing 48.1% of the time in the zone with the Pirates, compared to 41.6% with the Yankees. His career high was 45.7%, and his career rate was 42.8%.
The Pirates are now looking to Nova as a leader, and someone who can come in and provide a big boost to the rotation behind Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon. If he can pitch close to his production from the final two months of 2016, he will provide the boost they need. And if that production was fueled by being more comfortable due to being away from New York, then Nova has a good shot of coming close to those late-2016 results.