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Pregame: Ivan Nova executing Pirates' pitching philosophy with rediscovered curveball command

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Nova executing the Pirates' way

Clint Hurdle mentions the number of first-pitch strikes thrown by his starter during virtually every postgame presser. The importance of the stat is tied to a central tenet of the Pirates' pitching philosophy. They want pitchers to get ahead early, not only because it tilts the at-bat in favor of the pitcher, but also it makes it more likely that a plate appearance will be resolved in three pitches or fewer.

"We share with [each pitcher that joins the team] our core beliefs," Hurdle said. "One of them is getting hitters out in three pitches or less. So, to do that, getting strike one would be a really good way to start it."

Since joining the Pirates, Ivan Nova seems to be fully adopting the club's emphasis on early strikes. In seven starts, the right-hander's first-pitch strike rate is an eye-popping 68.9 percent, which represents a 11 percent spike over his rate New York this season, and is 10 percent higher than league average.

Naturally, the increase in first-pitch strikes is creating more 0-2 counts. Close to one-third of plate appearances are resulting in 0-2 counts, compared to 17.8 percent with the Yankees and 24.1 percent league average. Even more dramatically, 57 percent of 0-1 counts are turning into 0-2 counts; a 11 percent gain over his time New York, and 10 percent over league average.

The trickle-down effect of getting ahead early is found all over his surface stats. In particular, his pitches per plate appearance is only 3.15 since joining the Pirates. He currently leads MLB with an aggregate 3.40 Pitch/PA. The second most efficient pitcher, Jamie Garcia, is a full 0.30 behind Nova's Pittsburgh pace.

Team Pitch/PA BB% ERA WHIP
Yankees 3.51 5.9 4.90 1.35
Pirates 3.15 1.1 2.53 0.93

So, what is going on? Why is Nova suddenly getting ahead of hitters early?

His first-pitch mix is basically the same, with a slight uptick in the two-seam usage:

Four-seam: NY - 15.89%; PIT - 11.86%
Two-seam: NY - 50.58%;  PIT - 53.11%
Curve: NY - 27.34%;  PIT - 27.12%

Looking at first-pitch outcomes, we find that his ball-rate on fastballs has dropped 9 percent since joining the Pirates. More impressive, however, his curveball ball-rate is down 16 percent. In New York, Nova was throwing a first-pitch ball with his curveball 53 percent of the time, which was 13 percent over league average.

"The curveball command I thought was ok [in New York], but it has been spot on [here]," Hurdle said. "I don't want to speak for Ray [Searage] or [Nova] about whether they tweaked anything, but it has been fun to watch him spin that breaking ball for strikes and for chase."

Here is a look at Nova's improved first-pitch curveball command:

New York 2016

Nova CB NY

Pittsburgh 2016


While Nova is showing better command with both his first-pitch fastballs and breaking balls, it's the curveball that is showing the biggest uptick in beneficial outcomes.

Pitch-Team Balls+Hits Rate All Strikes+In play outs
Fastballs in NY 43.1% 56.9%
Fastballs in PIT 37.4% 62.7%
Curveballs in NY 53% 47%
Curveballs in PIT 39.6% 60.4%

Overall, first-pitch fastballs and curveballs are leading to positive outcomes at an over 60 percent clip. His first-pitch fastball success was already good in New York and he's kept it going with the Pirates. However, the curveball was a bad pitch for him with the Yankees and has become a very effective option for him in Pittsburgh.

Nova credits a very specific adjustment for his renewed effectiveness throwing first-pitch breaking balls.

"My release point was not too good when I got here," Nova said. "I was doing a lot of different things with my arm. We tried to correct that when I got here. I'm just trying to stay a little longer with the curveball. I was letting it go too early, instead of throwing it out front, in New York."

At the core of the Pirates' pitching philosophy is getting ahead early and retiring batters in three pitches or less. With his rediscovered curveball command, Nova is executing the plan about as well as we've seen.

Marte uncertainty

Starling Marte received treatment this afternoon for the back spasms that have held him out of the lineup the last three games. Hurdle was unsure whether the left fielder would be available off the bench for tonight’s game. Marte has dealt with back spasms in the past.