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Starting Nine: Pirates would be wise to pursue Nova aggressively |

Starting Nine: Pirates would be wise to pursue Nova aggressively

Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitcher Ivan Nova delivers to the Reds' Brandon Phillips during the second inning Saturday, Aug. 6, 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. Is Ivan Nova the second coming of J.A. Happ?

Wrote analyst Jeff Zimmerman: “Through July of this year, Nova ranked in the 15th percentile of all pitchers in rate of pitches thrown while ahead in the count. In August, Nova ranks in the 88th percentile.”

Entering Saturday night, Nova had thrown 42.6 percent of his pitches in the strike zone this season. That’s almost Francisco Liriano territory (Liriano has been demoted to the bullpen in Toronto). But since joining the Pirates on July 31, Nova ranks 10th in baseball in pitches thrown within the confines of the strike zone (52.4 percent).

2. Like pitchers (A.J. Burnett and Mark Melancon) preceding him who have left the DH-league, and in particular the bandboxes of the AL East for PNC Park, Nova also appears more comfortable in being aggressive in the strike zone in a more pitcher-friendly park and league. Like Happ of 2015, Nova is a free agent-to-be, and the Pirates will have to decide whether to bet on a small sample of success. Given the lack of options in a thin starting pitching market, some team likely will give Nova a lucrative, multiyear deal. The Pirates might want to consider being aggressive in approaching Nova with an extension.

3. Gerrit Cole avoided a scare with his right elbow. The ligament is intact. The intent is for Cole to return to the mound in September. He threw in the bullpen Saturday. But what has to be troubling for Cole and the Pirates is Cole committed to an improved strength-and-training regimen after the 2014 season and has had three injury-related interruptions to his 2016 season (rib, triceps and elbow injuries). Moreover, the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit conducted a study earlier this year and found pitchers who throw more fastballs are more susceptible to needing Tommy John surgery.

Cole has thrown fastballs on 66.6 percent of his offerings this season — the fifth-highest percentage in baseball — and 66.5 percent for his career. Cole believes sustaining health and success starts with fastball command. But perhaps adding another pitch and lessening his fastball usage would help.

4. How can the Pirates catch the Cubs in future seasons? (The Pirates are 3-12 against the Cubs this season). It might begin and end with the rotation. Jake Arrieta is a free agent after next season. Jon Lester is 32. The Cubs do not have a pitching prospect ranked among Baseball America’s midseason top-100 prospects. What today is an elite Cubs rotation soon could undergo significant changes. The Pirates could have a younger, more cost-controlled rotation for years to come. But the Pirates also might need quality veteran options.

5. With technology existing to replace ball-strike duties, umpires cannot afford to be regularly off the mark as Tony Randazzo was Wednesday night at Wrigley Field. The wide strike zone cost the Pirates at least one run in the Cubs’ one-run win as Josh Bell drew a fourth ball that was called a third strike with the bases loaded in the seventh inning. One drawback to an automated strike zone? Data show much of home-field advantage is tied to borderline strike-ball calls.

6. Juan Nicasio as a starter this season?

IP / ERA / K/9 / BB/9

62.1 / 5.05 / 9.1 / 3.6

Nicasio as a reliever?

IP / ERA / K/9 / BB/9

38 / 3.79 / 12.6 / 3.1

Nicasio is better suited for the bullpen, where his velocity spikes and his lack of a third pitch is less important.

7. To complete the Nova trade, the Pirates announced this week they are sending left-handed pitching prospect Stephen Tarpley and outfield prospect Tito Polo to the New York Yankees. The completed deal means the Pirates traded four top-30-ranked prospects, according to, on deadline day to acquire Nova, trade Liriano and acquire one player controlled beyond this season (Drew Hutchison).

8. Jordy Mercer has received praise for his defense, with Clint Hurdle saying he should be a Gold Glove candidate. Mercer is sure-handed and has a quick release and accurate arm. But his Defensive Runs Saved, according to Baseball Info Solutions, has declined from +9 in 2014 to zero last season to -9 this season.

9. One other troubling trend regarding Andrew McCutchen: His rate of pulled ground balls is up (71 percent) from his career average (61 percent). Defenses, in turn, have thrown a career-high number of defensive shifts at him. McCutchen has put the ball in play against 121 shifts this season compared to 55 last season.

Travis Sawchik is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter @Sawchik_Trib.

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