Historically, Red Sox hitters have tagged Ivan Nova. The Yankees righty takes the mound tonight having allowed a career .298 batting average, a .375 on-base percentage and a .430 slugging percentage against the Sox, essentially turning the average Boston batter into Dustin Pedroia circa 2013.
This time could be different, though. The Red Sox have yet to take on the 2013 version of Nova, who has transformed from one of the most homer-prone starting pitchers in the game last season (1.5 home runs allowed per nine innings in 2012) to one if its stingiest with the long ball. With 0.41 home runs surrendered per nine frames, Nova trails just Francisco Liriano (0.34 HR/9), Matt Harvey (0.35), Jhoulys Chacin (0.37) and Clayton Kershaw (0.39) in homer rate among starters throwing 100-plus innings.
Nova has slashed his home run total by pounding hitters at the knees with his fastball, generating lots of weak grounders rather than majestic souvenirs. Boston, however, thrives against knee-high heaters. Who will prevail tonight when a resurgent Nova takes on Boston's low-ball sluggers?
In 2012, Ivan Nova had about as much success with his fastball as Charlie Brown. He served up 14 home runs and allowed batters to slug .597 against his fastball -- only soft-tossers Chris Capuano, Jake Westbrook, Bronson Arroyo and Bruce Chen got hit harder. This year, though? Nova has allowed only three homers off his fastball, and he has an opponent slugging percentage (.398) that's comfortably below the major league average for starting pitchers (.442) in 2013.
Keeping his fastball low has been key for Nova. Check out his fastball location last year, and then in 2013:
Nova's fastball location, 2012
Nova's fastball location, 2013
He located about 29 percent of his fastballs to the lower third of the strike zone in 2012, but he has bumped that figure up to 40 percent this year. You might also notice that Nova is throwing many of those low fastballs to his arm side (about 57 percent of his low fastballs have been thrown to his arm side this year, up from just 31 percent in 2012).
Throwing more low, arm-side heat, Nova has increased his ground ball rate with his fastball from a league average 44 percent in 2012 to 54 percent. The only AL starters burning worms more often with their fastball are Rick Porcello, Doug Fister, Joe Saunders and Derek Holland.
Nova's new fastball approach will be tested against the Sox, who have collectively cranked 16 home runs against low heat (fourth-most in the majors) and slugged an MLB-best .505. David Ortiz (.726 slugging percentage vs. low fastballs), Mike Napoli (.659), Pedroia (.536) and Daniel Nava (.500) have done the most damage when pitchers throw low gas. Will Big Papi (a career .308/.400/.615 hitter in 15 PA versus Nova) continue to own Nova, or will the new-look Yankee scorch the earth against the Sox? Stay tuned.