Whatever you could say about Iván Nova’s struggles entering Tuesday, he did two of the three things a pitcher for which he his primarily responsible: throwing strikes and keeping the ball in the yard.
Nova carried a 6.23 ERA into his start against Baltimore, but it seemed severe considering he issued just three walks in four starts, and hadn’t allowed a homer, either. It’d be hard to continue being that bad with those things in his favor…
… so he gave up three walks and four homers to the Orioles over just four innings. His ERA is now 8.23, which is still way above his 4.56 FIP, but now the latter fails to impress, too.
Nova and Rick Renteria blamed his location afterward, especially with his fastball. That’s pretty much it. He left a lot of them up in the zone, and at 91-93, he can’t really afford to spend much time there.
But the weird thing about the extent of Nova’s struggles is that he’s having this hard of a time while throwing a new pitch, and throwing it well. He’s dusted off the cutter/slider he ditched in Pittsburgh, and even in the midst of a terrible start, it’s served him better than any of his other pitches.
Nova got more swinging strikes (four) and called strikes (five) with his cutter than any other pitch, and he only threw 21 of them. While he surrendered homers on both his fastballs and one on his changeup, the Orioles didn’t hit the slider harder than 89 mph.
This is characteristic with his season stats so far. Only four of the 39 hits he’s allowed have come on the cutter, and they’ve all been singles.
If you’re wondering about the nomenclature of the pitch, Brooks Baseball calls it a slider, while Statcast and this spring training story call it a cutter. The velocity is mid-80s, so a breaking ball seems more appropriate, but really, it comes down to what the pitcher calls it and how he feels throwing it.
And if you’re wondering why Nova doesn’t throw the pitch more often than 20 percent of the time if it’s his most successful pitch, feel may play into that, too. Looking at his charts on Baseball Savant, Nova really only uses his cutter when he’s ahead in the count:
This tension played out in the disastrous four-run fifth. After giving up three straight hits over the course of six pitches, Nova struck out Renato Nunez on four pitches, the last three of them cutters. Throw it more, right? But then he fell behind the next two hitters in part by missing with behind-in-the-count cutters. Rio Ruiz walked, Joey Rickard hit a two-run blast on a two-seam fastball, and Baltimore turned the game into a laugher.
The answer may still be “throw it more,” especially if everything else he throws continues to be so unimpressive. He prides himself on being a strike-thrower, but that doesn’t do much good when the strikes are that fat.
If this is what’s holding him back, this also falls into Welington Castillo’s jurisdiction. Castillo has caught all six of Nova’s starts this year, and he might have to take a page from the James McCann playbook when it comes to flipping slider/fastball usage for in-start survival.
Or, maybe McCann can just catch a Castillo start. Given the small samples and specific pitcher assignments, it’s hard to know how much blame a catcher should get in April, but this isn’t encouraging:
- Castillo: 6.97 ERA, .291/.371/.523 over 102 IP
- McCann: 3.72 ERA, .226/.307/.367 over 87 IP
McCann benefits from being Carlos Rodón’s personal catcher, but it’s worth noting that McCann guided Manny Bañuelos through a slider-heavy four shutout innings in Monday’s victory, so maybe a different catcher is something to consider.
(I’d also be reluctant to tilt starts too heavily in McCann’s favor. McCann’s been surprisingly good, and part of his encouraging April could stem from a lighter load. The Tigers ran him out there 110 times a year no matter how he was playing, and they never saw what he looked like doing less.)
We could also be overthinking this, and Nova ends up solving his problems with better location. He’s no stranger to terrible stretches, and his strike-heavy, whiff-light profile makes him susceptible to contact taking him the wrong way for weeks at a time.
If the slight velocity drop he’s showing thus far significantly slashes his margin for error, the slider might be an option. If that gets overexposed, Nova’s impending free agency makes it a bigger problem for the pitcher than the team.