By some measures, Ivan Nova had the best season of his Major League career in 2017.
He set career highs in starts (31) and innings pitched (187), while posting a 4.14 ERA that came in below his career average.
That was a pretty good year. But in 2018, Nova wants more.
Mostly, that stems from the way his 2017 went, with a first half when he was one of the best pitchers in the National League and a second half that saw him struggle to replicate that success.
One of the things that Nova felt that held him back in the second half of 2017 was that he was pitching deep into the season in the starting rotation for the first time in his career. Despite being 30 years old, Nova had never done that before 2017.
Towards the end of the year, he felt that he didn’t maintain his level of stamina throughout starts or recover as fully in between starts.
“Sometimes you get tired, sometimes you have fatigue, sometimes you don’t feel good,” he said. “When you start to get up towards 200 innings, your body starts getting tired.”
Nova also dealt with a bothersome knee injury that lingered through the second half of the season. The combination of the nagging health issue and the lack of ability to pitch deep into games combined to have Nova approach this offseason with some incentive to put his body into a better place.
He said he’s not doing anything diametrically different, just “working hard, like I always do.” But it’s more about having a knowledge of where he needs to get himself to at the beginning of the year in order to compete deep into the fall.
“You’ve gotta have in mind that it was my first time going to the end of the year in the rotation,” he said. “Now I know what it takes to do that and I think I’ve prepared myself.”
Nova hopes the physical adjustments will keep him fresher between starts and allow him to feel more like himself into the second half of the season. But to get to his stated goal of 200 innings, he doesn’t just need to take the ball every fifth day. He’ll need to go deeper into games. In the first half of 2017, Nova averaged 6.7 innings per start. In the second half, that number fell to 5.1.
There’s more than one reason pitchers aren’t able to go deeper into games, and for some, conditioning can be part of the issue. Pitch efficiency is also a big one, as pitchers are likely to get pulled as the near the 100-pitch plateau. The other issue is the times through the order penalty that sees pitchers struggle the third time they face a lineup, probably a result of a combination of factors, but one of them is undoubtedly a lack of deception the more a hitter has seen a pitcher that day.
Nova, in particular, is susceptible to that effect, because he relies heavily on two pitches, throwing his fastballs and curveball about 90 percent of the time. One of the things that Nova worked on this spring was to use his four-seam fastball and two-seam fastball in different ways in order to make more separation between the pitches. Catcher Francisco Cervelli, Nova’s long-time friend and confidant is the person that’s been spearheading that change.
“Cervelli told me, the last thing he wants to see is the difference between the sinker and the four-seamer,” Nova said.
In that regard, gaining some strength could help him. Nova’s sinker usually sits at around 92 miles per hour, and that’s where the movement on it works best. Nova can throw it harder, but tries not to in order to keep it from flattening out. The, four-seamer, though, Cervelli is trying to get Nova to throw harder in order to gain velocity separation.
“He doesn’t want me to go any higher on the sinker,” Nova said. “Everybody wants to throw hard, so, he told me I’m 91-92 on the sinker, let’s see some 94-95 on the four-seamer.”
Nova took the ball for the Pirates’ Opening Day against the Tigers on Friday and didn’t get that separation, but he was able to use his changeup to create the same effect. He didn’t have his best stuff, and twice had the bases loaded with no outs before battling through them. He didn’t get to go deep into the game as a result, but still put the team in a position to win the game.
As the team’s most veteran starter, Nova is expected to be the torch-bearer for that group. Friday, he showed the type of pitch-ability that would benefit all the Pirates starters. Manager Clint Hurdle said that’s been one of the most interesting things for him to watch this spring, as Nova helped mold the Pirates’ group of four other starters that are all 26 or younger.
“I thought it was a very professional camp for him,” Hurdle said. “It’s a perfect fit for us. A.J. Burnett was a perfect leader for us and wasn’t a leader anywhere else. It was the next step in Nova’s development in his career. That’s the great thing about our game.”
Nova did his part on Friday, now it’s his proteges’ turn.