DETROIT -- With the bases loaded and one out in the seventh inning Wednesday, Ivan Nova needed a double-play ball. He threw the Tigers' Nicholas Castellanos a sinker, but it missed its intended target. Castellanos drove it to the wall, emptying the bases and leaving Nova with an empty feeling as he continues searching for the command that brought him early-season success.
Nova's 3.87 ERA is respectable, but in seven starts since July, the Pirates right-hander has yielded a more concerning 5.93 mark. He said pitch location is his problem, though he fills the strike zone with ease. It's a matter of throwing good strikes instead of bad strikes.
"I keep going aggressive to the hitters," Nova said. "But in a matter of time, I'm getting too much of the plate."
Nova likes to pound the strike zone, forcing hitters to swing early in the count and, ideally, hit the ball on the ground. He lives in the middle third of the plate more than most pitchers, and his 19.72 percent of pitches in that zone ranks 15th among pitchers with at least 400 results, according to Statcast™.
All the pitches Ivan Nova has thrown in the middle of the plate this year, 19.72% of his total.
Early contact isn't necessarily a bad thing because it helps keep his pitch count low. Nova has completed six or more innings in 20 of his 23 starts this season, thanks in part to his 13.66 pitches per inning.
But it can work against him too, when batters jump on pitches over the middle and pile up hits. Nine of the Tigers' 10 hits against Nova on Wednesday came in the first three pitches of their respective at-bats.
"If you're not throwing the quality strikes, it kind of defeats the purpose," Bucs catcher Chris Stewart said.
There's a key distinction between simply throwing a pitch in the strike zone and throwing a strike that will lead the hitter to do what you want. Stewart identified Nova's sinker -- the one Castellanos drilled to end the righty's most recent start -- as the most critical pitch in terms of Nova regaining his command.
"Early on in the season, he had his sinker working," Stewart said. "It looked like it was starting where the hitter wanted it to, and it'd fall down into the bottom of the zone where we wanted it to be."
On a positive note, Nova withholds free passes like no other. His 1.27 walks per nine innings is the best in baseball among qualified pitchers. If he can combine that with consistently hitting his spots inside the zone, Nova can return among the league's best starting pitchers -- as he was in the first three months of the season.
"Obviously, it's a long season," Stewart said. "Your body starts to wear down a little bit; you don't have the quality of strikes you used to have. But it's a matter of just focusing and trying to get him to do what he needs to do every single pitch."
Jordan Horrobin is a reporter for MLB.com based in Detroit who covered the Pirates on Thursday. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.