Detroit Tigers: What should we expect from Ivan Nova this season

Detroit Tigers, Ivan Nova (Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
Detroit Tigers, Ivan Nova (Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images) /

Ivan Nova is a new addition to the starting rotation for the Detroit Tigers in 2020. What should we expect from him this season?

With Ivan Nova set to make his Detroit Tigers debut in Grapefruit League action on Sunday against the Atlanta Braves, now might be an appropriate time to take a look at what Nova might be able to offer the Tigers in 2020.

Nova, 33, signed a one-year, $1.5 million contract with the Tigers back in January to help fill out the team’s rotation. The right-hander is a nine-year major league veteran who came up with the New York Yankees and has also spent time with the Pittsburgh Pirates and, most recently, the Chicago White Sox.

This signing is exactly the kind of move that a rebuilding team like the Tigers needs to make. He comes at a low cost, and while he’s not exactly a marquee name, he figures to be a solid innings-eater coming into a rotation that already featured three pitchers who made at least 29 starts and gave the team at least 144 innings in 2019 in Matthew Boyd, Spencer Turnbull, and Daniel Norris. Indeed, barring injury, Nova’s signing ensures that the team will at least put out a quality major league starter almost every day.

Nova had a great two-and-a-half year run with the Pirates from 2016 to 2018 in which he made 71 starts and posted a 3.99 ERA. Last year with the White Sox, his ERA slipped to 4.72, and he led the league in hits allowed, though he also led the league in starts with 34.

Of course, the Tigers would love to see him recapture his Pirates form, though what they’re mainly looking for is innings. One potential reason to be optimistic is that Nova’s BABIP was up to .322 last year after being below .300 each of the previous two seasons. Nova has never been a big strikeout pitcher – he’s struck out 6.5 batters per nine innings throughout his career – so if the Tigers can play good defense behind him, Nova could have a good season.

As he gets older, it appears that Nova is relying more on offspeed pitches. Last year, according to FanGraphs, his fastball use fell from 66.9 percent in 2018 to 54.2 percent. Curveball use was also the lowest of his career at 16.8 percent. Instead, Nova reinstituted use of a slider after several years of not using it, while changeup use was the highest of his career at 16.2 percent.

What will the Tigers do with Nova this year? It will be interesting to see whether they will continue the trends that the White Sox started last year or they will try to get him back to more curveball and fastball use. The White Sox may have felt it was necessary to decrease fastball use in 2019, as the average velocity on the fastball was down from 92.9 in 2018 to 92.4 last year.

Yet given the higher ERA and BABIP and lower strikeout rate in 2019 – the latter was down to 5.5 per nine innings from 6.4 in 2018 – it appears that those changes didn’t work out that well for Nova. On the other hand, a continued evolution might be necessary if Nova’s fastball velocity continues to fall with age. It’s an interesting dilemma that the Tigers’ coaching staff will need to figure out.

In any case, it’s reasonable to assume that, as long as he stays healthy, Nova should be able to give the Detroit Tigers 30-plus starts and post an ERA in the 4’s. If he can do that, then he’ll have done his job.