Commentary

Is Ivan Nova this year's Phil Hughes?

Spring training struggles can mean nothing -- or they can forebode disaster

Updated: April 3, 2012, 9:24 PM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- A year ago, Phil Hughes completed his spring with a 1-0 record, a 4.91 ERA and every expectation that it meant nothing. Hughes had won 18 games the previous season and there was no reason for anyone on the New York Yankees to expect he couldn't match or even improve on it in 2011.

Fast forward a year to 2012, when Ivan Nova has just completed his spring with a 1-2 record, an 8.06 ERA and, once again, every expectation that once the real season begins, those ugly March numbers will add up to absolutely nothing.

After all, Nova won 16 games last year and there is no reason for anyone on the Yankees to expect that he can't match that, or even improve on it. ... Oh, wait a minute.

[+] EnlargeNova
Brad Barr/US PresswireIvan Nova's spring has had Phil Hughes 2011 written all over it.

Spring training numbers are sometimes a harbinger, but more often an illusion. Guys often have so-so springs and excellent regular seasons (see Freddy Garcia, 2011), and just as often have great springs and disappointing regular seasons (see Alex Rodriguez, 2011).

And major league managers and GMs are notorious for using those numbers as they see fit. If a guy has good spring numbers, they point to them as the reason why said guy is poised to have a great season. If a guy has bad numbers, hey, it's only spring training.

Based on his performance this spring, and particularly Tuesday afternoon against the New York Mets, the Yankees better hope Ivan Nova is more Freddy Garcia than Phil Hughes. And before you even ask the manager, you just know what he's going to say: Hey, it's only spring training.

But if recent history repeats itself and Ivan Nova 2012 turns into Phil Hughes 2011, we will remember this particular day, the one Nova described as "one of the worst days of my life."

It wasn't that bad, even if the opponent was the Mets, but as an omen heading into the regular season, it was bad enough.

"Not good, not good," was Nova's assessment of his performance, in which he lasted just 2 2/3 innings, allowing five runs on eight hits and having alarming difficulty throwing his fastball for strikes.

"I wasn't pitching right," he said. "I felt good today but I couldn't throw strikes. I didn't have command on any of my pitches and I don't feel good about that."

Nova said he felt "lazy" out there, like "my body was sleeping or something," a sentiment Joe Girardi echoed when he said that for unknown reasons, Nova wasn't using his legs on the mound.

"I can't tell you exactly why," Girardi said. "Was it due to the last start? Was it due to the bus rides? Was it just being fatigued? Who knows?"

He was referring, in order, to Nova's last start on March 29 -- when he threw 94 pitches, worked into the eighth inning and allowed three runs on seven hits -- to the two-and-a-half hour bus trip the team made from Tampa this morning and to just plain being tired from seven relentless weeks of spring training.

He then uttered the manager's best friend, the generic March disclaimer: "You don't want to be fooled by spring training."

The trick is to know which spring trainings you can trust and which you can ignore.

It would be a lot easier to ignore Nova's 2012 spring if Hughes' hadn't been so similar.

Like Nova, Hughes came to camp last year reasonably sure he had a spot in the starting rotation, having won 18 games the previous spring.

Like Nova, he bore little resemblance in the spring to the pitcher he had been the previous summer. (In 2011, Hughes got fat; in 2012, Nova got hit).

Like Nova, he had problems with his fastball, although Hughes' problems were those of velocity, not location.

Hughes, of course, wound up on the disabled list after three poor regular-season starts with what was first diagnosed as ''arm fatigue" and later evolved into shoulder tendinitis, albeit a much worse case, as GM Brian Cashman informed us before Tuesday's game, than what Michael Pineda is suffering from now.

But it sure took a long time to manifest itself, and for the longest time, Hughes denied having any pain in his shoulder. He just couldn't find his fastball.

After Tuesday's outing, Nova too denied there was anything physically wrong with him. He just couldn't find the plate with his fastball.

"I mean, almost the whole spring I was feeling good," he said. "Today was the worst day. Even in the season last year, I never had a day like today."

Of course, there are important differences between Hughes' 2011 spring and Nova's 2012. Even before anyone acknowledged an injury, Hughes' fastball was loitering in the high-80s, a development no one could account for.

Nova's velocity has been solid all spring, even, as Girardi said, as high as 95 at some points. And the manager discounted the innings jump Nova made last year, in which he pitched 165 1/3 innings after having thrown just 42 major league innings the year before. Nova, he noted, had already pitched another 140 innings in Triple-A that season.

"He's been up there before," Girardi said of Nova's innings count. "I mean, it can be somewhat of a concern but we haven't seen a drop-off in his fastball like we saw in Phil. Can it manifest itself in the way of command? I guess it could. But I haven't necessarily seen the dead arm that we see out of a lot of guys that have the big innings jump."

Still, the Yankees have always seemed to have questions about Nova, from 2010, when they would pull him at the first sign of trouble, to last year, when despite an 8-4 record on July 1, they chose to send him to the minors to make room for Hughes' return from the DL rather than drop the ineffective A.J. Burnett from the rotation.

Nova, to his credit, never seems to be bothered by anything. As an emergency call-up in 2010, he stepped into the midst of a hot AL East race and pitched well. Last year, he pitched a terrific 6 1/3 innings in the resumption of Game 1 of the American League Division Series to beat the Detroit Tigers. And this spring, he has been his same unflappable self even though Girardi repeatedly included his name among the four aspiring starters on his roster who were fighting for three rotation slots.

Now, with Pineda on the DL and Andy Pettitte still a month away, it is Girardi who is counting on Nova to repeat his 2011 success this season, much the way he had counted on Hughes to repeat his 2010 success last year.

"I'm sure he's frustrated right now by the way he's throwing the ball," Girardi said. "But he won a lot of games for us last year. He has that in his hip pocket."

It is the same thing he thought about Hughes last year.

Typically, Nova said he is not concerned that his March struggles will carry over into April and beyond. "I think spring training just ended for me right now," he said. "I just gotta look forward to the season. You never know. Maybe all the bad moments happened for me here in spring training."

Maybe so. And maybe, they are only beginning.

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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