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Starting Nine: Is geography tied to Nova’s success? | TribLIVE.com
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Starting Nine: Is geography tied to Nova’s success?

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Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitcher Ivan Nova delivers the final pitch of his complete game victory over the Reds Thursday, Sept. 8, 2016, at PNC Park.

Written by Pirates beat reporter Travis Sawchik, “The Starting Nine” is a weekly feature composed of quick-hit thoughts and analysis on the Pirates and MLB. This feature will appear every Sunday.

1. What’s behind Ivan Nova’s J.A. Happ-like breakout? It’s mind over mechanics, Nova says.

2. There are those who believe geography is destiny. And it could be geography — ballpark geography — that explains, in part, why the Pirates have had so much success turning around pitchers, especially those coming from the American League and in particular the AL East.

Said Nova of pitching in Pittsburgh versus the ballparks of the AL East, where he spent the first six-plus seasons of his career: “It’s not like pitching in Baltimore or Boston, Toronto, where the ball flies, or New York. A fly ball, (and) it’s a homer.”

PNC Park has the largest left field in the game, from the notch to the foul pole, according to overlays of the dimensions of every major league park by Louis J. Spirito. Yankee Stadium, Nova’s former home, has the shallowest right field.

Most favorable home run ballparks, according to ESPN Park Factors (1.000 is average):

1. Yankee Stadium, 1.435

2. Coors Field, 1.321

3. Chase Field, 1.282

22. PNC Park, 0.837

3. As discussed in this space last week, in part because of his comfort level with the park, Nova is throwing 20 percent more of his pitches in the strike zone with the Pirates compared to his time in New York. The Pirates — and other teams in the free agent market — will have to decide how important environment is to Nova’s success.

4. While the Pirates got a look at Drew Hutchison in the rotation Saturday and also could look for a spot for Trevor Williams down the stretch, the initial plan is to leave Tyler Glasnow in the bullpen. Glasnow might have the highest ceiling of any of the young Pirates arms on the roster, but he also might be the furthest away from sticking in the rotation. Glasnow needs the most polish and the more controlled environment and limited exposure of the bullpen could help him ease him in.

5. It’s not a slam dunk that Glasnow is best suited to be a starter. With his 6-foot-7 frame, he might always struggle to throw strikes and command the running game. It’s not inconceivable that he fits better in the bullpen and that he could become a dominant arm there. At present, he has the skill set of a reliever. Moreover, teams like the St. Louis Cardinals have broken in starting pitching prospects in the bullpen. And next season, one of the Pirates greatest areas of need figures to be right-handed bullpen arms.

6. After Tony Watson’s struggles this week, there was public uproar over the club’s decision to trade Mark Melancon prior to the trade deadline. But trading two months of control over a relief pitcher headed to free agency for five-plus years of control of an electric arm in Felipe Rivero was a no-brainer for the club. And Rivero has been more dominant than Melancon since the trade. Entering play Saturday, Rivero had a 1.47 ERA with the Pirates, striking out 28 and allowing just 13 hits in 13 innings. (Melancon has a 2.04 ERA in Washington).

7. Watson has struggled in his first month-plus as a major league closer. He might not fit there and is not a long-term fit as he will be a free agent after next season. But Watson does not believe he has struggled because he is pitching in the ninth instead of the eighth. He said his issues simply are tied to fastball command. And the data back up Watson’s claim. For instance, Watson’s most common fastball location to left-handed hitters is in the center of the strike zone, according to PITCHf/x data. Watson’s issues (career-high 3.1 walks per nine) were bubbling up before he moved to the ninth.

8. Jung Ho Kang has struggled to stay on the field, and he’s been inconsistent with his game. But Kang has not lost his power. Kang’s slugging percentage (.518) and HR/FB rate (25 percent) entering Saturday were well above average marks. For a second straight season, Kang has proven his power translates from the Korea Baseball Organization and that he can hammer fastballs as well as any major leaguer, including a 99 mph fastball off Cardinals’ top prospect Alex Reyes on Wednesday for a homer. What the Pirates need in 2017 is for Kang to be on the field. The Pirates need more power, more instant offense, as they rank 26th in the sport in homers.

9. The Pirates should continue to give Josh Bell work in right field in addition to first base to give themselves as much flexibility as possible. If, say, the club traded or suffered an injury to an outfielder, Bell should remain an option in right field.

Travis Sawchik is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at tsawchik@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Sawchik_Trib.

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