Well, you might have to get used to it, Ivan.
The Mets, with a lineup not expected to provoke memories of 1986, knocked out eight hits and drew two walks in just 2.2 innings. Nova, who has struggled this spring, saw his exhibition ERA rise to 8.06.
Nova has hardly been dominant this spring, but he was hardly dominant last season despite going 16-4 with a 3.70 ERA. His fastball averages 93 mph, but he lacks a strikeout pitch, leading to a low rate of 5.4 strikeouts per nine in 207.1 career innings—the offspeed stuff that would lead to stranding batters at home plate just isn't present.
What made Nova effective last year was that he had one of the highest ground-ball/fly-ball ratios in the AL and was very difficult to take out of the park, particularly outside of Yankee Stadium. This was both a positive development and a bit of a nervous mystery in the making for three reasons:
- Nova hadn't been billed as a ground-ball pitcher coming into the season, and there is no guarantee that he will be one again.
- Ground-ball pitchers are very dependent on their defenses to turn grounders into outs, and with an aging Alex Rodriguez at third and ol' I-Can-Only-Go-To-My-Right Derek Jeter at shortstop, Nova isn't going to get a lot of help.
- Even if Nova had a peak Graig Nettles and Ozzie Smith behind him, sometimes pitch-to-contact guys just have off-years. Balls hit right at fielders last season find holes this season.
In baseball, the only proof against failure is stranding the batter at home plate. Any other outcome may not result in disaster,—indeed, most of the time it won't—but it at least risks it.
Before last year's breakthrough, the conventional wisdom was that Nova's shallow arsenal would ultimately condemn him to a life in the bullpen. That may still be the case. Batting average on balls in play isn't always the answer, but sometimes it does provide a hint.
And, in Nova's case, last season's .284 average is going to have to hold steady or drop for him to keep winning games if he's walking three and striking out five per nine innings. Just a tick higher, and last season's strand rate is going to plummet.
It's possible we're already seeing a bit of that this spring.
Manny Banuelos, come on down? It could happen sooner than you think.