Ivan Nova currently has a 3.87 ERA and a 4.06 xFIP. For a free agent signing on a three-year, $26 M deal, those aren’t bad surface numbers. He’s making about $8.5 M per year on average, and is currently worth 1.5 fWAR, with the typical $/WAR figure for free agents coming in at $8-9 M now. Nova has provided more than the value of his 2017 contract already.

If you dig a bit deeper into Nova’s numbers, you see a concerning trend that is developing. Through his start on June 11th, he had a 2.83 ERA and a 4.00 xFIP. The advanced metrics weren’t far off where he is for the season, and the higher ERA is due to a low BABIP (.262) and a high strand rate (76.7%). Nova’s totals last year with the Pirates in both of those categories were .318 and 68.7%, which is closer to the typical league average.

He’s made ten starts since that outing on June 11th, and the results haven’t been as good. He has a 5.40 ERA and a 4.16 xFIP during this stretch, including some poor outings the last few times out. While there were signs of negative regression to the mean in the first half, there are some signs of positive regression with these numbers. His BABIP is .342 and his HR/FB ratio soared to 25%, after being slightly below 10% in the first half.

The home run issue was a big thing for him in New York, but was one of the things that died down for him in Pittsburgh, getting back to a normal HR/FB ratio. He also almost completely cut out his walks in his trip to Pittsburgh, posting an 0.42 BB/9 last year. He was around that number this year, with an 0.71 BB/9 through June 11th. Since then, he has a 2.1 BB/9, which isn’t bad, but takes away a big thing that was working for him. This also comes with an increase in strikeouts, which helps to negate the walks.

I could start to dig into reasons for Nova’s struggles lately, but it would mostly be speculation. One theory I saw was that he might be hurt, as he left the June 6th start with a knee issue. He did return to throw six shutout innings in his next outing, so I’m not sure if that’s the issue. Maybe he’s fading down the stretch, or maybe it’s just a small sample size and he can get back on track soon.

What I do want to talk about is a disturbing trend that has been going on the last few years.

The Pirates made one of their best moves by adding Nova at the trade deadline last year. For the price of two Grade C prospects they got one of the best pitchers in baseball down the stretch.

They did the same thing the year before, trading a Grade C pitching prospect to get J.A. Happ, who also ended up being one of the best pitchers down the stretch.

One of their other strong moves in recent years was signing Francisco Liriano to a two-year deal as he was coming off a season where he was the worst starter in baseball, then watching him become one of the best starters in baseball the next two years.

The Pirates have an extensive track record of finding pitchers with good stuff, bad numbers, and advanced metrics that suggest the numbers could be improved with a few tweaks. But look at the results from those three pitchers after the initial success.

I don’t think I need to tell Liriano’s story, since the Liriano trade has been talked about on a daily basis for over a year now. So here’s the short of it: The Pirates re-signed him to a three-year deal, he looked great in year one, started falling apart in year two, they salary dumped him at the deadline figuring he wouldn’t bounce back, and outside of his initial run in Toronto, he has gotten worse.

Then there’s Happ, who the Pirates didn’t re-sign, and who signed a three-year deal with Toronto. He hasn’t come close to the video game numbers he had with the Pirates, but hasn’t been bad. He had a 3.18 ERA and a 4.18 xFIP in year one of his deal. This year his numbers have dropped to a 3.77 ERA and a 4.01 xFIP. He’s worth a 1.2 WAR right now, and making $12 M, so he has come close to providing the value of his contract. But he’s also seeing his xFIP dropping, with a 4.79 since the end of June. It’s not as drastic as Liriano, but Happ might be seeing a decline in year two.

And that brings us back to Nova. Maybe this is a small sample size. Maybe it’s an injury that is derailing him. Maybe it’s a matter of throwing too many innings. He’s never thrown more than 170 innings in his career, and he’s only 21 innings off that mark with two months to go in the season.

But what if this is a continuation of a bigger trend, where the magic that leads to a reclamation project only has a limited shelf life?

That is another question that is difficult to answer, as is the question of why the Pirates were able to fix Liriano the first time, but weren’t able to fix him the second time (I’ll leave Nova out of that, since it remains to be seen how he rebounds from this stretch). Overall, I don’t think the Pirates should avoid reclamation guys, as they clearly have a talent for finding them and turning them around. But maybe they need to reconsider having those guys around for the long-term, as the early signs show that the reclamation magic might have a short shelf life.

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33 COMMENTS

  1. The Pirates signed Nova to a #4/5 pitchers contract, to be a #4/5 pitcher. He has out pitched that designation IMO, and will likely continue to do so. It is not his fault that the rest of the staff crapped down their respective legs, making him appear for a time to be more than what he is.

  2. There’s definitely been an expiration date on the “Searage magic.” Most of the pitchers were AL pitchers. I think it just takes a little while for the NL to figure them out. Moreover they’ve all been flawed erratic pitchers to begin with. Yes the Pirates can figure out how to help a guy play to his strengths, but it’s not like the weaknesses ever go away.

  3. A month ago I said I was wrong about Nova pointing out he was pitching better then when he was with the Yankees but now he has seemed to reverted back to that Yankee pitcher again. I hope not and wish that he returns to the first half pitcher he was.

  4. I have said this for years. Best value is to sign these recaims and trade them after year one. Good plan for Nova IMHO.

  5. I think the Pirates were smart to sign Nova last winter. I think they would be smart to deal him this winter. Not necessarily because I subscribe to the theory Tim suggests, but for the reason they would be wise to make a spot for either TG or Kingham in next year’s rotation.

  6. The management seems to understand that position players need a day off once in a while to rest and focus on tweaking their game. Yet, the starting rotation keeps trotting out turn after turn unless injury sidelines them. We have enough pitching talent at Indianapolis to give Nova a break. Let him come in from the bullpen, perhaps, as with the minor league starters, but let him rest his body and work a bit on mechanics. See if that helps.

    • Have him make his next start (August 15). On the 18th, skip Brault’s start in AAA, and on the 20th option Osuna to AAA and have Brault come up and start. Send Brault back down on the 21st and have Luplow come back up while Osuna plays out his 10 days on option. Give Nova his next two starts on the 25th and 30th, and you have Brault lined up with him in the Indy rotation to slot in if needed in September.

      Or, DL Nova after his next start with shoulder fatigue or something, bring up Brault to pitch on the 20th and 25th, then send him back down and activate Nova to pitch on the 30th.

      • The Pirates did admit early that he had an issue with a knee. When I watch him pitch there seems to be signs of physical discomfort to the point of him grimacing after some pitches. Don’t be surprised if we hear of some treatment or cleanup procedure after the season ends. I’d like to see someone on the PP staff ask Nova or the coaches point blank….is he pitching now with a bum knee?

  7. Nova’s BB/9 has increased, but the more alarming problem, and probably the more impactful, is that his command inside the zone has been poor lately. Everyone knows he’s a strike thrower, and that hasn’t changed, but early in the season, the strikes he threw were good strikes. He’s throwing a lot of bad strikes now, including in 2-strike counts, which are getting hit hard.

    He’s not nearly as good as he was to start the season, results-wise, but he’s definitely better than he’s been the last few starts. His stuff is fine but unspectacular, and he’s got the ability to keep it in good spots, but he hasn’t lately, and it’s hurt him.

    He was always predictable, but even while predictable, he kept the ball off the good part of hitters’ bats by making them swing outside of their best swing paths. Now he’s still predictable, and he’s throwing more pitches in hitters’ wheelhouses.

    I think the ERA comes way down, though, if Hurdle combats the temptation to let him pitch deep into games for a bit. He’s so efficient, it’s hard to pull him early, but he’s really bad the third time through the order, and letting him pitch to guys a third time is probably a mistake, at least until and unless he gets that pinpoint command back.

  8. This article is why it is nice to look down at Indy and see Brault, TG and now Kingham pitching so well.

    If worse comes to worse, maybe Nova becomes our #5 SP or is moved?

    • I don’t have to stretch too hard to see him being fifth or heaven help us lower if he continues to regress and the kids continue to impress. Glasnow wouldn’t be the first really good pitcher to have a trip back to AAA and then put it together and Kingham is really looking like he could be the #3 that he was projected to be before TJ. Time will tell on Williams and Kuhl but the SSS is becoming not so small of a sample size with each additional good outing. And then there is Brault I don’t think we know what he can be until he gets some starts in the Majors.

  9. Also, Nova / Cervelli need to mix things up. recently it looks like hitters are sitting on Nova’s pitches. Maybe he is tipping? Maybe his sequence is predictable? He looks like he has been successfully scouted.

  10. I think that both age and the effect that a guaranteed contract on the psychology of the pitcher can contribute to this decline. The fix is never going to happen, but if players were paid directly for production you would see consistent production rise significantly.

  11. Maybe sign them for two years, with a club option for a third, or if the player won’t go for it, have a buyout clause. The flipside to this is they’ll probably have to pay more money to get these accommodations and we all know how well that flies with BN.

    • With what is coming up from the minor league system maybe they won’t need a reclamation project going forward, at least for a few years.

    • Since it seems like they come to Pittsburgh and pitch great for a year or a year and a half then go downhill, and as Burnett shows, can leave and then come back to Pittsburgh and pitch great again, the solution is to come up with a new Split Contract: A three-year contract, but the guy pitches for some other team in year 2. Trade for the guy and sprinkle Searage magic pixie dust on him so he pitches great in his walk year, then re-sign him and have him continue to pitch well in year 1. Then he goes somewhere else in year 2 and sucks, and when he comes back in year 3 you apply another dose of Searage magic pixie dust and he’s great again.

    • He did go to Philly and struggle, before coming back and turning it around. The question is whether this was entirely due to the Philly defense — or even mostly due to the defense — or if it was just him regressing.

        • I remember something about that early. But I also remember him talking about his views of the shifts changed after going there, and he realized they were helping, along with a few other things the Pirates were doing.

          • Pretty sure it was a sports hernia. Had the pleasure of hearing some of the stuff he said off the record while in Philly. AJ was definitely……….honest.

      • And at this point, he really is the only exception to the “expiration date” idea. Liriano certainly has stuff equal to AJ, so you can’t pin it on that, either. I appreciate the thought that goes into your articles, Tim.

      • Philly defense. I remember seeing a stat, forgot which one, in July of AJ’s year with the Phils, that showed he suffered from about 28 basehits that would have been outs with the Pirates defense.

  12. I’d just like to see him go on the 10 day DL,
    miss a start and REST, bring up one of the
    talented kids to make a start and go from there.
    Don’t wait.

  13. So maybe it is a change in the philosophy after they are able to reclaim the pitchers. In the past, they reclaimed pitchers in hopes that they would fill a top of the rotation position, say as a 2nd or 3rd starter. The Pirates didn’t have the depth in the rotation, toward the top not to depend on them.

    With the success of the farm system filling in the rotation and what is still sitting in AAA, maybe they need to flip the reclaim projects, instead of trying to keep them. It is hard to give up pitches, but everyone is also looking for more pitching so the market value is going to be strong.

    If they get reclaim projects to fill in the back of the roation, becuase they have a solid 1,2,and 3 or a 4th starter. Or to fill in spots in the bullpen, then even if they are in a playoff battle, flipping them for prospects or bats would not be as big of impact to the overall Major league clubs preformance.

  14. These kinds of pitchers were erratic to begin with, even if they have innate talent. They have roller coaster careers. Just look at Charlie Morton. He seems to be riding the high wave crest…for now. Plus, you have to factor in that a man will lose anywhere from 3% to 20% of his testosterone after age 30. For any man, especially a male athlete, that is significant. So you should expect some natural decline…especially in this non-steroid era. Now he’s probably pitching with lesser stuff. Now he needs to re-adjust again. Maybe this time you can’t elevate him with that lesser stuff. At this point in his career…he probably wouldn’t be the type of pitcher that you would consider as a good candidate for reclamation. So yes, having these guys around for more than, say 2 years (there are always exceptions) might be playing with fire.

  15. Perhaps the batters eventually catch up to the changes that Ray makes with the pitchers that the Pirares acquire during the season. Then, what does Ray do at that point?

    One thing about Francisco is that there seemed to be a very fine line between the success and failure of his pitches that were right off the plate. One of the things that could mess him up was if the home plate umpire was calling a lot of balls on pitches near the outside corner of the plate.

    • I think Liriano was doomed when the league finally convinced themselves he wasn’t going to throw them strikes. When they knew he wasn’t, but couldn’t convince themselves of it at the plate, he got chases constantly. When they stopped chasing, he walked people or had to come into the zone, and his command was never good enough to do that effectively consistently.

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