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Nova, Kennedy find success in versatility

April 22, 2012

Ian Kennedy is not an imposing mound presence. At six feet and 190 pounds, 2011′s 21-game winner appears even smaller, with throwback stirrup socks and a beard that looks more like a child playing dress-up than a Cy Young vote-getter.  And even now, at 27, as the former first-round pick is climbing toward his prime after a change of scenery and a breakout season brought him league-wide acclaim, Kennedy’s success holds remnants of striking juxtaposition to his appearance, despite all he was billed to be at the start of his career.

Ivan Nova is an imposing mound presence.  At 6’4″ and 225 pounds, the broad shoulders and resolute gaze of the Yankees’ youngest rotation piece give him a confidence beyond his years. Indeed, Nova’s self-assurance and ability to make in-game adjustments head up his scouting reports, despite a series of early disappointments in his young career, including boomeranging between leagues after a failed Rule Five pick by the Padres sent the unprotected prospect back to the Yankees.  At 25, Nova’s story is beginning anew, and he’s surprising everyone–except himself.

But for both men–the USC standout whose talent was overshadowed by the bright lights of the Bronx and the big man who was never supposed to be more than a low-risk, mid-level prospect with a cocky grin–the mound has become a welcome home. And a full complement of pitches has been the path back.

When a first-round draft pick out of a high-profile school tops out around 91, he’s a finesse pitcher in the vein of David Cone or a late-career Mike Mussina, craftily maneuvering through a lineup by out-thinking hitters, as he was drafted to do. But despite the forgiving labels and attainable precedents, Kennedy struggled in New York. Whether because of his own lack of confidence or because the organization pushed him before his time had come, Kennedy foundered, his hitch-step strut off the mound belying his defeats. So when the righty featured in a three-team deal following the 2009 season, baseball balked. Kennedy was fresh off surgery to remove an aneurysm from his pitching arm, and Arizona had surrendered two solid pitchers in the trade. To many, it looked as though Kennedy had simply become another cautionary tale of a high-draft arm that weighed its pitcher down with expectation.

But Kennedy’s true value wouldn’t be revealed until his statement-making 2011, and it came about as the result of a finesse pitcher who finally learned to use his strengths.  Though always possessing an above-average knuckle curve, the righty has begun to refine it, mixing the pitch with a stellar changeup and serviceable cutter. Mixed with  a fastball that Kennedy has learned to command, the four pitches give Arizona’s ace a full, working arsenal for the first time in his career.  In 2011, Kennedy’s walks per game plummeted to 2.2, down a full 1.0 from his previous  low.  His WHIP was 1.086–far and away the best mark of his career and nearly unheard-of for a low-90s pitcher. When the curtain fell on September, Kennedy’s campaign earned him a Game 1 playoff start and votes for NL Cy Young and MVP–a far cry from the pitcher who won all of one game with the team that drafted him. Finally, Kennedy had become the finesse pitcher he was groomed to be.

When a solid, undrafted free-agent from the Dominican tops out around 93, he’s a back-end starter at best, who projects to succeed only if he can out-pitch his own potential.  Unlike Kennedy, Nova was not blessed with the expectations of a first-round pick.  He wasn’t a crafty pitcher with elite pedigree from a West Coast MLB-feeder school. He was grit and determination and a pedestrian fastball that relegated him to the lower levels of the Yankees’ farm system, leaving once when New York failed to protect him in the Rule Five draft, only to be returned when San Diego couldn’t use his services.

But a full complement of pitches takes several years to develop, and Nova saw results slowly, languishing in low-level minor league clubs before making the leap to AA in 2009. From there, Nova and the Yankees didn’t look back. In each successive season, the big righty took steps forward, putting up a 12-3, 2.86 campaign in 2010 before being called up to the big club for a trial run with the contenders. But it was 2011 that would be Nova’s coming out party, and he handled it with an aplomb that would quickly become typical.

After amassing eight wins for the Yankees through the first half of 2011, Nova was sent back to AAA Scranton-Wilkes Barre to make room for Phil Hughes, who was returning from arm fatigue rehab. Rather than show petulance that might have been well within his rights, he approached the demotion with a calm maturity, expressing his hope to pitch his way back into the Yankees’ rotation as soon as possible. Nova’s wish was granted three weeks later when the big club called on his services for a double-header, and his rotation spot would never be relinquished.  When his Rookie of the Year bid was complete, the Yankees’ new number two starter would put together a record of 16-4, including 12 straight wins, and an ERA of 3.70 (3.18 after his return).

Beyond the confidence and stalwart mound presence are the tangible: four solid pitches, including a plus sinker, a four-seam fastball, a 12-6 curveball, and a relatively new circle changeup. When the fastball fails, the big righty has shown an innate ability to make in-game adjustments, leaning on his off-speed pitches when necessary. In high-leverage situations, Nova bears down, featuring a higher strikeout rate and lower opposing batting averages and on-base percentages than in lower-stress moments. Most importantly, the 25-year old has become a force to be reckoned with every fifth day, looming large even through mediocre appearances. Though the confidence is deep-seated, the results are finally living up to the expectations Nova always had for them.

Success doesn’t have to be measured in velocity, and flash doesn’t equal substance. Both Ivan Nova and Ian Kennedy are proof that versatility can be as valuable as power and a level head can be as essential as seeing three digits pop up on the radar gun–even if the path there isn’t exactly smooth sailing.

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