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.