Heading into the 2014 season, Ivan Nova was the least talked-about member of the New York Yankees starting rotation. In this instance, don't confuse attention for importance in the Bronx.
CC Sabathia entered spring noticeably lighter—in both weight and fastball velocity—Masahiro Tanaka caused a stir every time he stepped on the mound, Hiroki Kuroda faced questions about a poor second half of 2013 and Michael Pineda needed a big spring to secure the No. 5 role in the rotation.
Meanwhile, Nova's role—somewhere in the middle of New York's staff—was secure, based on a rock-solid second half of 2013 (13 GS, 2.78 ERA) and excellent spring (19.2 IP, 10.50 SO/BB). At the age of 27, Nova's career trajectory and ability left him off the back pages in New York, but squarely in the Yankees plans for success in 2014 and beyond.
With two starts under his belt, the Nova of late last summer and spring training 2014 hasn't made an appearance yet. Despite securing a personal victory in a season-opening series in Houston, Nova left Tuesday's game against the Baltimore Orioles sporting an 8.68 ERA and 2.25 WHIP.
10 hits over 3 2/3. That's enough for Ivan Nova. Good spring has not carried over.— Sweeny Murti (@YankeesWFAN) April 8, 2014
It's early and small-sample size numbers can be eye-opening in April, but the real Ivan Nova must soon emerge for a Yankees team depending on a deep and durable starting rotation to make up for question marks across the infield and bullpen.
After getting hit around Yankee Stadium by the powerful Orioles offense, Nova now has over 525 innings of major league service time under his belt. In theory, that should be more than enough to make a determination on the type of arm he has and performer he can become.
It's Ivan Nova getting knocked around here in the Bronx.— Andy Martino (@MartinoNYDN) April 8, 2014
Yet despite ample time to prove himself as a top-tier starter, Nova continues to confound. Until the Yankees can coax a full season of very good performance out of their talented righty, questions will persist.
To be fair, Nova's 2014 season can't be judged or outlook changed based on two outings. In fact, positives can be taken out of both seemingly underwhelming performances by Nova through New York's first eight games.
In Houston, Nova showed toughness and a knack for generating double-play grounders at opportune times. Without command or feel for his entire arsenal, the game could have easily got out of hand against the hapless Astros. The ability to battle and keep the team in the game—a career-long trait of Nova's former rotation mate, Andy Pettitte—should be praised more than a high WHIP should be scorned.
Against the Orioles, shaky infield defense—specifically Derek Jeter's diminishing range and Yangervis Solarte's average athleticism—allowed innings to snowball and batted balls to turn into big, game-changing innings. Still, the home run Nova allowed can't be blamed on anyone but him. The same can be said for a slew of strikes over the middle of the plate.
While the Yankees infield has been no help today, Ivan Nova didn't exactly fool batters either.— Jorge Arangure (@jorgearangure) April 8, 2014
Nova's inability to string together consistent excellence is quickly becoming his hallmark. That, in itself, isn't particularly troubling. In fact, heading into Tuesday's start, Nova owned a career ERA+ of 105 across 90 major league outings. Above-average production is valuable, but Nova's tantalizing moments—including a fourth-place finish in the 2011 AL Rookie of the Year vote—gives hope that he could blossom into more.
Last season, his month-by-month production was another example of perplexing performance. Across July and August, few pitchers were better. In April, few pitchers were worse. When totaling the 23 appearances, Nova's ERA+ ranked among the best seasons any 26-year-old Yankee starter has ever posted, per Baseball-Reference (subscription required).
Despite that, FanGraphs' projections systems like Oliver (3.95 ERA, 2.0 WAR), Steamer (4.13 ERA, 2.3 WAR) and ZiPS (3.98 ERA, 2.1 WAR) didn't peg Nova for anything close to a Cy Young campaign in 2014. Projections and predictions can be taken with a grain of salt or they can be instructive.
Where will Ivan Nova's 2014 ERA end up?
In Nova's case, the latter probably applies.
Two starts don't disqualify Nova from excellence for the remainder of 2014, but the prior 83 do suggest unpredictability and variance from outing to outing. If you were banking on Nova emerging into one of the best starters in baseball, it might be time to acknowledge that inconsistency is as much a part of his repertoire as great stuff.