Will Nova burn as brightly in Pirates return?

Can Ivan Nova continue to post insanely good strikeout-to-walk numbers with the Pirates? Pittsburgh is banking on it. AP Photo/Fred Vuich

It might be a modest surprise to see Ivan Nova return to the Pittsburgh Pirates -- for just $26 million over three seasons, no less -- but consider this as much an endorsement of Nova's talent as it is a bet on the Pirates themselves.

It’s betting that what Nova did last year in two months with the Pirates after a trade from the Yankees is going to stick, as Nova went 5-2 with a 3.06 ERA and an crazy good 17-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. But beyond that, it’s also betting that having Nova continue to work with pitching coach Ray Searage and catcher Francisco Cervelli will deliver those kind of results. But for a guy with a 4.30 career ERA and a 2014 Tommy John surgery in his rearview mirror, does it make sense?

First, consider the Pirates’ predicament. After reaching the postseason three years in a row, the Pirates tumbled back below .500 for the first time since ending their streak of 20 losing seasons. While a lot of the focus on that stumble has been on star outfielder Andrew McCutchen’s off year (and speculation he’d be dealt), a more devastating reason the Bucs came up short was their rotation’s stumble from reliable excellence.

Part of what sank the Pirates was their choice of veteran pitchers they thought might find new life with Searage. Jeff Locke and Ryan Vogelsong combined to allow almost 5.5 runs per nine innings in their 32 starts for the Pirates. Add in ace Gerrit Cole’s elbow injury limiting him to 21 turns, Francisco Liriano’s plummet from co-ace to a 5.46 ERA (and a trade to Toronto) and Locke's adding almost a full run to his ERA. The Pirates owed a lot to strong run prevention from their rotation in their three seasons in contention, getting low-scoring games into the sixth inning and later. Last year, that evaporated.

The question now is whether to keep Nova to pair with Cole up front -- while the Pirates’ talented young quartet of Tyler Glasnow, Jameson Taillon, Steven Brault and Chad Kuhl comes into their own. Is that a formula to get the Pirates back into contention? Is Nova really the veteran who might deliver on Searage’s track record for production with seasoned starters, adding to previous retread success stories such Liriano, A.J. Burnett, Edinson Volquez and J.A. Happ?

Pittsburgh's doubt there might be apparent in Nova’s contract: a good $10 million less over three years than Jim Bowden pegged his likely value earlier this winter. In a tough market to find free-agent starting pitchers worth signing, you might reasonably expect Nova to have gotten that kind of money. But there were other good reasons he did not, as Eno Sarris got into last month, not least among them that Cervelli snagged a lot of extra strikes for Nova through his excellent pitch framing. Nova's fastball velocity didn’t improve, and his strikeout rate improved two points, reaching only an MLB-average 19.8 percent. Add in his inconsistency with the Yankees and you can understand why some clubs were skittish.

Dive into Nova’s pitch data and it becomes clear what he did differently after going to the Pirates, beyond just getting extra strikes thanks to Cervelli. Nova started going to off-speed stuff earlier in counts as a Pirate and boosted his first-strike percentage from a below-average 58 to a better-than-average 67 percent. Consistent with that, his pitches per plate appearance also dropped to a career-best 3.16. He worked faster and got into pitcher’s counts earlier. Add in the benefits working with Cervelli, and maybe Nova is worth this much to the Pirates -- if no one else -- because of what they can do for him, as well as what he can do for them.

The easy observation is that teams know their players best, and the Pirates must think that’s the kind of stuff they can expect from Nova going forward. In terms of the average annual value on Nova’s contract, they’ve bet less on him than they did on Jonathon Niese ($9.05 million in 2016) last season for less reason after trading second baseman Neil Walker for the former Mets lefty.

Betting $26 million that Nova will continue to perform might not be cheap at Pirates pricing, but it seems a reasonable risk to believe he and Searage can produce more than other recent retread attempts. Add him to a rotation that starts with Cole and offers their choice of Brault, Kuhl, Glasnow and Taillon, and that could be a strong enough unit to put the Pirates back in the National League’s wild-card mix. And if they trade for Jose Quintana, as has been rumored? Get ready for Pittsburgh to raise the Jolly Roger a lot more than they did last season.

Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.