COMMENTARY | Despite a career 29-14 win-loss record, New York Yankees pitcher Ivan Nova still has a lot to prove.
Last year, Nova came to spring training after a surprising 16-4 season in which he finished fourth in the American League Rookie of the Year voting. Never considered one of the Yankees' top prospects, Nova finishing 2011 with a 3.70 ERA in 27 starts and flourished as a middle-of-the-rotation starter. This year, Nova enters camp in a battle with David Phelps for the final spot in the Yankees' rotation.
"Last year was a really bad year for me," Nova said this week. Despite finishing with a 12-8 record, his ERA ballooned to 5.02, enough for Joe Girardi to leave him off the Yankees' postseason roster.
Nova didn't blame his troubles on a sophomore jinx. Instead, he was pretty blunt: "I got hit."
Actually, Nova didn't just get hit; he got crushed.
Nova gave up 28 home runs and 52 doubles last season. In fact, he had five starts last season in which gave up at least four doubles in a game. However, he struck out more batters than he did the year before, raising his strikeout rate from 5.3 per nine inning to 8.1 (tenth in the American League) while keeping his walk rate to around 3 per nine innings.
If he can maintain his control around the strike zone, further develop his change-up, and learn to keep his pitches outside the heart of the strike zone, Nova should be a solid addition to New York's staff.
Hopefully, for Yankees fans, competing for a rotation spot will motivate Nova, who told reporters this week that he's confident that he'll beat out Phelps -- who finished 4-4 with a 3.34 ERA last year -- for the final starting spot. (Also lurking is Michael Pineda, who may return before the All-Star break.)
"I would say I'm in a fight," Nova said. "I cannot sit here and let things happen. I've got to go and fight for it."
Girardi is also pushing the 26-year-old right-hander, although most observers think Nova is widely favored to win a spot in the Yankees rotation despite going 2-5 with a 7.05 ERA in his final 11 starts. (In a bit of an understatement, pitching coach Larry Rothschild recently described those starts as "two bad months.")
"He has to go out and prove himself. That's the bottom line, because of what he went through the second half of last season," Girardi told the Newark Star Ledger. "He has to earn a job."
Howard Z. Unger is a freelance journalist in Brooklyn, New York. For the past 15 years, he has written about sports, media, and popular culture. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, New York Post, and New York Times.