Kevin Gorman: Lighter Ivan Nova hoping to carry heavier load for Pirates staff
When Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage spotted Ivan Nova in the clubhouse, his eyes were as big as his smile at the sight of the slimmed-down starter.
“You're half the man you used to be!” Searage shouted to Nova, giving him a bear hug.
Nova arrived at spring training 10 pounds lighter, wanting to reduce the stress on the left knee that bothered him the second half of last season. It limited his workouts and ruined his running routine.
“The last thing you want is to suffer from that too early,” Nova said. “I decided to go down on my weight. The only thing that can do is help you out.”
Now, the Pirates are hoping Nova is back to being the man who was 9-6 with a 3.21 ERA and .254 batting-average-against in 18 starts before the All-Star break last season.
The 31-year-old right-hander will show off his leaner look when he makes his first start of spring training Monday against the Boston Red Sox at LECOM Park, and his makeover isn't the only changeup he worked on this offseason.
Nova worked on improving his off-speed pitch so he can work it more regularly into his repertoire after going 11-14 with a 4.14 ERA amid career highs in starts (31) and innings pitched (187) last season.
“That's one of the reasons that I did the preparation that I did for this offseason,” Nova said. “It's my first time going through a full year in the rotation. I can finally say now that I know what it takes to be able to go and pitch with 30-plus starts. That's I guess what you learn from. You know what you have to do to get to that.”
The Pirates are convinced a healthy Nova can reverse his second-half struggles: 2-8 with a 5.83 ERA and .316 BAA in 13 starts after the break.
Nova is adamant his weight had nothing to do with his second-half statistics, blaming it solely on his knee inflammation.
“I did everything I could do to have a full year and a good result. I had a full year, and the result at the end wasn't what I was expecting, but it was nothing to do with my weight,” Nova said.
“You have struggles. Sometimes you want to give everything you have out there, and sometimes it don't happen. For some people, it happens at the beginning of the year. For me, it happened last year at the end.”
Searage agreed, saying Nova's consistency is tied directly to his health after his first season as strictly a starter since being acquired from the New York Yankees in August 2016.
“He knows the importance of diet now. He knows the importance of in-season training,” Searage said. “But the biggest thing he learned last year is how important it is for offseason training to prepare you to carry that load throughout the season.
“He made some big strides in that area, because in the past he was a starter-reliever-starter, then he comes to us and he's a full-blown starter. Now, it's a different world in how you prepare yourself.”
With ace Gerrit Cole gone, the Pirates are preparing for Nova to play a pivotal role in their starting rotation.
Nova pitched the most innings of any returning Pirates starter, and his renewed focus on remaining healthy hasn't gone unnoticed by other members of the pitching staff.
“For a veteran like that to make such a big change this late in his career — he still had a pretty nice year last year when you look at the whole body of work — and for him to say, ‘Maybe I can improve something and get better,' that fires me up,” starter Jameson Taillon said. “He's never going to stop getting better, which is a good trait, and that's someone we all look up to, so he's setting the tone for sure.”
And not just with his toned-up look, which could allow a lighter Nova to carry a heavier load.
That has the Pirates hoping that Nova is half the man he used to be and twice the pitcher.