Ivan Nova's struggles can derail the Pittsburgh Pirates surprise season

Ivan Nova's struggles can derail the Pittsburgh Pirates surprise season


Ivan Nova's struggles can derail the Pittsburgh Pirates surprise season


Pittsburgh Pirates starter Ivan Nova is just two starts removed from a sparkling performance at PNC Park against the Detroit Tigers, but in his last two road outings, major red flags have arisen for the veteran right-hander.

In Nova’s last two starts for the Pittsburgh Pirates — May 2 at the Washington Nationals, and May 8 at the Chicago White Sox — the veteran righty has gotten knocked around, giving up 10 earned runs in 6.1 innings, allowing 17 hits and three home runs.

Both starts on the road saw Nova’s BABIP right around a scorching .515, while his HR/FB rate sits right around 42 percent in his last two starts. Those numbers don’t look great for a starter like Nova, who fell off of a cliff in the second half of the 2017 season.

Velocity is there, but…

While Nova’s velocity sits between 92-96 mph, which is normal for him, the swinging strike rate has plummeted for Nova. Prior to the Detroit start April 26 in Pittsburgh, Nova sat right around 12 percent swinging strike rate, per FanGraphs. However, following that start, Nova’s swinging strike rate has fallen to 10 percent, and now sits just under 9 percent, while his her currently sports the second-highest BABIP mark of his big-league career through eight starts in the 2018 season.

Fortunately for Nova, his hard hit rate sits around 35 percent, which is right around his big-league average. But again, Nova’s hard hit rate is on the rise this season, jumping from right around 22 percent in the first month of the season, to 35 percent now.

Taking a look at Nova’s pitch location charts to left- and right-handed hitters on the year, Nova has sat center-in on left-handers, while sitting center-out on right-handed hitters. Against right-handed hitters, Nova pounds the zone right in the sweet spot for hitters, which is a concern, considering he’s not missing many bats at this point in his career.

Split em up

Oddly enough though, Nova has better splits against righties than lefties, despite pounding the zone inside on lefties. On the year, Nova sports a /305/.345/.519 split against lefties, and a .262/.299/.461 split against righties, while balancing his seven home runs allowed on the season nearly evenly, allowing four homers against righties, and three against lefties.

One thing is very clear though with Nova:  he loves pitching at the Pittsburgh Pirates’ home park.

In the friendly confines of PNC Park, Nova shuts teams down, allowing a .220/.235/.408 slash line at home, but on the road, that slash line skyrockets to .304/.350/.515 on the year. In fact, Nova has allowed six of his seven homers on the road, and recorded eight of his nine walks on the year on the road.

So what’s the problem with Nova on the road?

Well, for one, he’s uncomfortable early on the mound, which is evident right away, considering he’s allowed 19 earned runs in just 31.1 innings of work on the road. Flip that to home splits, and the veteran right-hander has allowed just five earned runs in 13.1 innings of work.

That’s not much different from 2017 either, where Nova had a 5.02 ERA on the road, and a sparkling 2.80 ERA at home. He tends to lose control on the road due to lack of command, which seems to be a mental game.

When at home, Nova challenges hitters right out of the gate, pounding the zone early and often, getting outs early in counts. But on the road, Nova seems to be battling something internally, nibbling around the zone instead of keeping that same bulldog mentality, at least lately.

For the Pittsburgh Pirates to continue to surprise this season, Nova will have to figure out his woes on the road. However, the good Nova should show up in his next few starts in May, considering he’s slated to start May 13 against the San Francisco Giants at PNC Park, May 18 against the San Diego Padres at PNC Park, and May 23 on the road at the Cincinnati Reds, and May 28 against the Chicago Cubs at home.

Three of those four starts will come against the No. 18 (Cincinnati), No. 21 (San Francisco), and No. 26 (San Diego) ranked offenses in baseball, while the Cubs rank (No. 8), per ESPN’s team batting stats.

For Nova to get back on track after two poor starts, he’ll need to get back into the mindset of pounding the zone early, forcing teams to put the ball in play at home. With that mentality, and having the backing of PNC Park, the veteran should be able to settle back into a zone, helping the Pirates continue to surprise early in the season.

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