Keeping Nova’s fastball down

Against the division rival Rays, Ivan Nova spun an excellent game, going eight-plus innings, allowing just four hits (including none from the second batter of the game until the eighth inning) and one run while walking one, hitting one, and striking out five. He also got 12 balls on the ground out of 22 hit into play, a rate that tied his previous season high.

Something interesting about Nova is that, despite throwing his fastball with a cross-seam grip, he has, at least throughout his major league career, generated the results more typical of a sinking two-seam fastball. Josh Weinstock looked at this just about a year ago, and I’d like to come back to it today.

Nova’s fastball, which he throws from a ¾ arm slot, sinks a few more inches on its way to the plate than a typical right-handed four-seamer, but not as much as a two-seamer. As Nova said after a start against the Reds last month, keeping the ball low is the key for him, and the data certainly seem to back that up.

For this post, I’ve split up the vertical strike zone* into three equal regions, plus the areas below and above the zone. The MLB average data goes back to 2007, and only regular-season games were selected.

Groundballs/Ball In Play
            Low Out-Z   Low In-Z   Middle    High In-Z   High Out-Z
Nova FA     65%         66%        55%       40%         26%    
MLB FA      58%         44%        35%       28%         25%      
MLB SI      70%         59%        50%       41%         35%

*The strike zone used is fixed (i.e., not adjusted for batter height) and runs from 1.75 feet off the ground to 3.4 feet off the ground, based on Mike Fast’s research here.

When Nova keeps his fastball low, it acts like a sinker, and a good one at that. But once you start getting into the upper third of the zone, the pitch (unsurprisingly) starts to get hit in the air more often.

Now, fastballs don’t always have to stay low to be effective. Back in 2009, Dave Allen simply and effectively showed us the relationship between whiffs and grounders and how they relate to pitch height. If Nova could consistently get swings and misses up in the zone, he would at least have that going for him. Unfortunately for Nova, batters seem to have little trouble making contact with his fastball wherever it is placed.

Swinging Strikes/Swings
            Low Out-Z   Low In-Z   Middle    High In-Z   High Out-Z
Nova FA     24%          6%         4%        6%         26%    
MLB FA      17%         10%        12%       18%         33%      
MLB SI      23%         10%         8%       12%         25%

Sometimes on a two-strike pitch, you will see Russell Martin call and set up for a high fastball. That seems like a very dangerous proposition based on Nova’s inability to get the ball past hitters high in the zone. You’d need to get it way up out of the zone, and then it’s unlikely batters will chase it at all.

So, basically, Nova is left with a one-dimensional four-seam fastball that acts like a two-seamer. Since he’s very comfortable using his slider and power curve in the dirt to pick up strikeouts, it is important for him to keep his fastball low and avoid loud contact.

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