How Much Room for Error Do the New York Yankees' Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova Have?

Brandon Mauk@@B_MaukContributor IIIApril 24, 2013

Phil Hughes has pitched much better lately as it seems his back is OK.
Phil Hughes has pitched much better lately as it seems his back is OK.J. Meric/Getty Images

With the amount of age and injuries the New York Yankees have suffered the last few months on offense, it seemed that they had to become more reliant on old school baseball—defense, bunting, base-stealing and of course, pitching—rather than their typical and traditional high-octane power approach. 

In fact, going into the 2013 season, it looked as if pitching would indeed be their calling card. So far, it's been good enough to get the Yankees to an 11-8 start. CC Sabathia, Andy Pettitte, Hiroki Kuroda have all delivered the innings and quality pitching, and David Robertson and Mariano Rivera have been effective in closing out victories. 

The only concern right now for the pitching staff is the back end of the rotation, which is currently composed of Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova. So far, both have struggled in the early going. 

After winning 18 games in his first full year as a starter in 2010, Hughes has been up and down the last couple of years. In 2011, he lost his velocity for a while and ended up missing a couple of months due to a dead arm. Last year, he rebounded after some inconsistencies to win 16 games and pitch over 190 innings, despite giving up 35 home runs. 

In spring training, Hughes suffered a bad back and had to start the year rehabbing. He was then brought back up quickly in the first week of the year and made his first start in Detroit.

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After struggling in his first two outings, he has put up back to back quality starts, allowing just two runs in seven innings each time. In his start against Tampa Bay on Tuesday night, he averaged about 93 mph with his four-seam fastball and topped out at 94.6, according to Brooks Baseball's PitchFx Tool. His slider was also extremely effective. 

Given the injury, the Yankees probably see Hughes' first two starts as a mulligan, and they should remain patient with him. He's rewarded them in his last two outings, and they would like to see him continue to improve as the season goes on.

On the other end, Ivan Nova has to be on a short leash. After winning 16 games and stepping up as the Yankees' No. 2 starter at the end of his rookie year in 2011, Nova has really struggled. He compiled a 7.05 ERA in 11 starts in the second half last year and gave up a total of 28 homers. 

A big reason for his struggles is his attempts to pound the strike zone. In 2011, his K/9 was only 5.3, with 98 strikeouts in over 165 innings. In the last two seasons, he's upped it to 8.2 K/9 with 169 strikeouts in 185 IP. In response to this, however, he's been getting hit. Hard. In 31 starts in the last two years, he's given up 10.4 hits per nine innings.

According to FanGraphs, batters have hit more line drives (28.6 percent this year) and fly balls (32.4 percent last year) off Nova, often resulting in home runs and extra-base hits. In fact, Nova gave up the most extra-base hits in baseball last year.

So far this season, Nova has started three times, only getting as far as the fifth inning each time (he couldn't get an out in the sixth on Sunday). In just 14.2 innings pitched, he's given up 19 hits and eight walks. 

Obviously, he AND Hughes have to get better or they could find themselves in Triple-A, as the Yankees have some reinforcements waiting. 

One guy the Yankees could bring up now is left-hander Vidal Nuno. He's very versatile, making 21 starts and 10 relief appearances last year, going 10-6 with a 2.54 ERA and a 3.82 K/BB ratio. This year, he's allowed just four runs on 13 hits in 23.1 IP while striking out 26 batters and walking only two. He also recently won International League Pitcher of the Week. 

Nuno is a guy the Yankees could use right now. He has plenty of experience coming out of the bullpen, so he'd be a very good left-handed hitter specialist.

Another guy that could provide rotation help is Michael Pineda, the fireballer whom the Yankees received for Jesus Montero last January and subsequently missed all of 2012. Well, it seems like he's on his way back according to Bryan Hoch of MLB.com. He already threw a simulated inning, and he apparently hit the low 90s.

Pineda should be ready sometime in the summer, which should be enough time to see what Nova and Hughes really have to offer and if changes have to be made. Right now the Yankees have time, so there's no reason to panic as the season's slog continues. 

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