The majors miracle of Ivan Nova
Against the odds, the Yankees pitcher made it to the big leagues from the D.R.
Unless you're a New York Yankees fan, you probably haven't thought much about Ivan Nova.
You might think he's overrated because he pitches in New York, his 21-8 career record undone by a 4.21 earned run average.
Or maybe you think he's underrated, a 5.69 ERA this season offset by a well-above-average 3.46 xFIP (expected fielder independent pitching, a statistical tool that helps gauge a pitcher's performance independent of outside factors, such as the quality of his team's defense).
Either way, whether he's regarded as an ace or a back-of-the-rotation starter, Nova warrants notice, his rise to the majors a testament to an almost perfect symmetry of timing, scouting, development, luck and, of course, skill. Reaching the big leagues is a difficult task for most players; in Nova's case, his presence in New York represents an organizational triumph for the Yankees, the kind of story celebrated in baseball's back rooms, in coaching offices, and in the messy cars scouts often drive from place to place searching for the next big thing.
Statistically, it's not easy to reach the majors. Since 1965, according to Major League Baseball, 60,428 players have been selected in the amateur draft. Not factored into that number are the countless players who signed as free-agent amateurs from various countries, a group that wasn't officially tracked and tallied until recently. But for perspective, approximately 500 international free agents are signed collectively by teams each year.
Yet since '65, only 8,493 players -- either drafted or signed as international amateurs -- have appeared in at least one major league game. The odds of reaching the majors are certainly long, and very little in Nova's backstory -- he signed out of Palenque, a tiny village near San Cristobal in the Dominican Republic -- appeared to make him a more likely big leaguer than any of the other Latin American players signed over the years.
Nova's arrival -- he went 16-4 with a 3.70 ERA last season -- is a reminder that baseball is still built on the backbone of scouts, coaches and, of course, players with distinct and diverse backgrounds.
The Yankees saw something in Nova in 2004 worth an $80,000 signing bonus, about average for a prospect in the D.R. and certainly more than the low-cost bonuses of $10,000 to $20,000 given to many players signed on a whim or a gut feeling or because of a relationship with a trainer. To sign a player for almost six figures indicates that a team sees at least one projectable quality, yet not enough potential to merit a seven-figure bonus. For that quality to emerge, teams depend on good coaching and a player's adaptability; and even then, the player may never reach his potential.
"A lot of work was done by coaches and scouts, but most of the work was done by [Nova]," Yankees senior vice president Mark Newman said. "We're happy for him. We're happy for the Yankees. This process, this system, yields that result. So there's a lot of people that were involved with it that should feel pretty good about it. That's why we're here. That's what we're supposed to do. That's what we're trying to do, but it's hard."
When Nova next takes the mound -- it'll be Friday night in Oakland if a lingering ankle sprain doesn't get in the way -- some Yankee fans may worry about his ERA or fret about how many home runs he's giving up (10 already this year, as opposed to 13 all of last season). But make no mistake: That he's out there at all is somewhat of a miracle.
In the spring of 2004, Victor Mata, a Yankees scout in the Dominican, received a phone call from a trainer with whom he had a cordial relationship. Previously, Mata had signed Yhency Brazoban from this trainer, so he trusted his opinion.
Signings in the Dominican Republic often are the result of these types of casual relationships between trainers and scouts. The nature of the free-agent market requires scouts to be well-connected, and few are more connected than Mata, a 50-year-old former outfielder for the Yankees.
"I have a prospect for you," the trainer told Mata. "I know the type of players you like. This kid is ready to sign."
The kid in question was 17-year-old Ivan Nova. Mata didn't know much about him. Few did. He'd spent a couple weeks at the Boston Red Sox academy; but for the most part, he was an unfamiliar commodity.
During his formative years in the game, Nova played at shortstop and in the outfield. Nobody considered him much of a prospect until a growth spurt in his early teens.
Once he grew tall, area coaches began to take notice. One day, after playing against kids his own age in the morning, Nova, then about 15 years old, was asked to appear at the local field later that day to compete against older boys. Somebody wanted to see if he could pitch.
"I had pitched before as a kid, but had not for a long time," Nova recalled.
His long, lanky physique (the Yankees now list him at 6-foot-4, 225 pounds, but he was much slimmer then) made him a natural. Almost instantly, he was throwing accurately toward home plate. From that moment, Nova was a pitcher.
But this late discovery stalled Nova's development. It was like he was beginning anew. Nova's trainer told him it wouldn't be easy to re-make himself into a pitching prospect because he was starting over at such a mature age -- at least by Dominican-prospect standards.
Each day, Nova woke up at 5 a.m. to work out. At times, he wanted to stay in bed, but his father, Manuel, a manager of a restaurant/bar on the beach in San Cristobal, was up to encourage his son to work hard, something the father had done all his life to provide for his children. There were times when the family didn't have enough to eat, and Manuel Nova would sacrifice half his dinner so his five children, who all slept on one bed, could have a bit more food. There were days when Manuel asked his children to help out at the restaurant so the family could earn a bit more money. Such was the family need.
Nova knew he couldn't send his father away when he came calling at 5 a.m., no matter how much he wanted to sleep.
Eventually, Nova earned the attention of a few scouts. Former Red Sox scout Johnny DePuglia recalled that the team wanted to sign him, but Nova didn't seem amenable.
"I really didn't want to sign with Boston," Nova said. "My father and I were both Yankee fans."
So the trainer called Mata, and the Yankees became interested. Nova spent two weeks at the Yankees academy.
"I told my trainer that at the first opportunity, I wanted to sign with the Yankees," Nova said. "He would tell me that [we] could possibly get more money elsewhere. I told him I didn't care. I wanted to sign with the Yankees."
Mata liked that Nova had a long, lean body and threw with good mechanics. His stuff didn't blow anybody away -- at best, he threw only 86-89 mph, his curveball was nice, and he had a feel for a change up -- yet his easy delivery foretold of intriguing possibilities.
Mata did what scouts do: He dreamed. His instincts told him that this skinny, tall boy, if things worked out perfectly right, could one day be a major league pitcher.
"When you force yourself to throw 86 to 88 mph, then you don't have much projection," Mata said. "But when you throw easily, then you expect the velocity to get better. He was 175 pounds when he arrived at the academy. You think that when he grew up to 200 to 225 pounds, then the ball would come out with much more force."
Now it was simply a matter of convincing the decision-makers that Nova was worth signing. That didn't prove too difficult. At the end of his two-week stay at the academy, Newman, an experienced scout who spends much of his time in Latin America, recognized many of the qualities Mata had seen.
Additionally, during simulated games, Nova was showing an uncanny ability to throw strikes, something many Latin American pitchers don't do at an early age. Trained to impress scouts during tryouts, many try to light up the radar gun instead of throwing strikes. Not Nova.
Normally, Nova's age, then 17, might have been a problem. In the Dominican Republic, many teams shy away from kids older than the signing-eligibility age of 16, believing that Latin American players are behind in development due to lack of game action. Nova, according to that theory, would already be a year behind in pro ball, and he wouldn't play his first game until he was 18.
But the Yankees had their own theories. New York has made it an organizational philosophy to pursue anybody who shows talent or potential, and that approach helped the Yankees land older prospects such as Melky Cabrera (signed at 17) and Robinson Cano (signed at 18), among others.
"We've realized that talent shows up in a lot of different areas," Newman said. "The best thing to do in the scouting and player development area is to keep expanding the talent pool. We keep finding ways to try and like players. With every player on the planet, you can find something not to like about him. We keep looking for those positive attributes; we keep looking in those dark corners."
Newman offered $80,000. Nova quickly accepted. Now the Yankees had to hope that with some guidance, he would develop.
One of the lovely things about baseball is that for the most part, and certainly there are always exceptions, players are rewarded on performance, a true meritocracy.
"I always think players have a chance, whether we gave him $1 or we gave him $1 million," Mata said.
Nova climbed through the Yankees' minor leagues ahead of some higher-rated and better-paid prospects. Here is where luck played a part.
The Yankees could not have known how well Nova would integrate into professional baseball. But they knew from his two tryout weeks at the Dominican academy that he is a supremely confident player, a necessary trait for someone with Nova's background who was facing long odds and a difficult road through the minors.
It was his confidence that kept him afloat in those first difficult seasons. On the days during his first year in the United States when he grew frustrated that he was eating only pizza because he couldn't read a menu in English, Nova's belief that he could be a major leaguer pushed him to press on.
Many times, it wasn't easy even to dream. In 2008, he began the season in Class A at Tampa with a losing streak, and became so discouraged that he called his family and told them he wanted to quit.
"All I wanted was to win," Nova said. "The only thing that mattered to me was winning. As I mounted up losses, I grew frustrated and wanted to go home."
Several people in the organization were called in to speak with him. Eventually, word reached Mata.
"If you want, I'll hop on a plane right now and I'll bring you back with me," Mata told Nova over the phone. "But you'll have to say it to my face."
Nova stayed. If anything, the Yankees were encouraged by his devotion to winning. The organization began to recognize that he valued the team more than he valued his own performance.
And even that rough patch in Class A didn't diminish his love for the game, another lucky twist in this tale.
As a young boy, Nova learned to play baseball on the streets. During the week, the field in Palenque was often occupied by older boys, so younger kids like Nova had to wait until Saturday to play on a regulation diamond. Sometimes, it seemed that rainstorms in the Dominican came only on Saturdays. But the boys were undeterred. Many, including Nova, would grab sponges, bed sheets, anything to soak up the water on the flooded fields. They played regardless of the rain.
His love for baseball carried him through the next difficult phase, when he was moving ever closer to the big leagues. At the end of the 2008 season, Nova was left unprotected in the Rule 5 draft. The Yankees figured that while Nova might be selected, his mediocre statistics up to that point might mean he wouldn't last the whole season on his new team's major league roster -- a requirement for any player chosen in Rule 5 -- and therefore would be returned.
They were right. The San Diego Padres drafted him. But he had a horrendous spring and was sent back to New York before the start of the season.
Nova was discouraged to have been left unprotected -- "In my heart, I was a Yankee," he said -- but his healthy confidence helped him dismiss his spring stumbles. Instead, he focused on the outings that spring when he had pitched well. More than ever, he was convinced that with some refinement, he could pitch in the majors.
"To me, baseball wasn't about being a prospect," Nova said. "What could I do when people doubted me? All I could do is not think about those things and forget about the world. Whether you're a prospect or not, it's difficult to get to the majors. I could only do my work. Think of all those prospects who are in the minors now. But they don't always get the chance. Sometimes, there simply isn't any room for them. It doesn't matter whether people used that word 'prospect' for you, I never worried about it. If I did my job, and there was room on the roster, I would get my call-up."
At the end of the 2010 season, it came. His spring stint with the Padres taught him to be more aggressive against hitters, a strategy that led to improved minor league seasons in 2009 and '10. The Yankees thought so highly of him that they used him in 10 games down the stretch (he went 1-2 with a 4.50 ERA); and at the end of the regular season, they sent him to Tampa to work out in case they needed to add him to the 2010 postseason roster.
One day during that stint when Nova was playing catch, Yankees vice president Billy Connors, who spent 17 years a pitching coach in the majors and acts de facto in that role for the organization now, approached Nova and asked if he'd ever considered throwing a cutter. Connors, who as Cubs pitching coach had taught Greg Maddux the cutter, showed Nova a grip and asked him to try it.
"When I saw him throw it, he could do it so easy," Connors said. "I told him, 'This is really going to help you win some ballgames.' You see guys throw it; a lot of guys can't do it because it backs up on them. Nova, the first time he did it, it broke the right way and that's what I was impressed with."
The moment transformed Nova's career. Up to that point, none of his secondary pitches foretold a long career in the majors. The cutter changed that. Also, it was a pitch that might help keep him healthy.
"The reason I teach that cutter is to take away the pressure of the old slider where guys used to twist their wrist, throw it off their middle finger, which would hurt their elbows," Connors said. "With this one here, all I teach them to do now is throw it off their first finger and you just turn your hand and throw it like a fastball; and when it comes off the finger, it just runs inside."
Very quickly, Nova gained confidence with the pitch. The following spring, new Yankees pitching coach Larry Rothschild asked Nova to make a few modifications; and soon, the cutter evolved into a pseudo slider. Nova had so mastered the pitch that he made the major league team out of spring training in 2011.
During his call-up in 2010, prior to working with Connors, PitchF/x, as tabulated by brooksbaseball.net, registered Nova as having thrown just 11 sliders out of 655 pitches (2 percent). In 2011, that number rose to 340 sliders out of 2,663 pitches (13 percent). This season, Nova has relied on the slider even more, 128 out of 670 pitches (19 percent).
"It doesn't have your typical slider spin," Yankees catcher Russell Martin said. "You don't see the dot coming at you, and it doesn't have a massive break to it like a typical slider. It looks firmer. He'll be 92 and then it will come at 88 mph."
Since learning the pitch from Connors and modifying it while working with Rothschild, Triple-A coach Scott Aldred and Yankees minor league pitching instructor Nardi Contreras, Nova has established himself as a major league starter. He has filled the No. 2 role in New York's rotation in the playoffs last year and has rattled off 15 straight wins.
Collectively, the Yankees had created a major leaguer.
"Scouting, signing, developing major league players is a hugely difficult task," Newman said. "It's hard. It's year-round, costs money, takes time, there's a bunch of failures. You relish the Ivan Novas."
Yet there is little time for the organization to celebrate.
Nova's slow start this season has the Yankees looking for more answers. Recently, he and Rothschild have been tinkering with a change-up, a pitch with which Nova is not unfamiliar. He was throwing it when he was signed, but it had lapsed on him and he needed a fresh start with it, with a new grip. Nova does not yet have enough confidence in the pitch to use it frequently in a game -- so far, he's throwing it only 5 percent of the time -- but he's getting there.
And of course, the Yankees have more than 200 potential Ivan Novas demanding their attention in the minor leagues, too. There are young men in the Dominican, in Tampa, in Scranton, waiting for that one moment when they might learn something that will propel them to a major league career.
For most, that moment will never come.
"I can't tell you how much time we spend examining what we've done, what we're doing and how we can make it better," Newman said. "It's an everyday exercise."
So the next time you see someone like Nova on the mound, remember, it's somewhat of a miracle.