For those who haven’t been paying close attention to the site, or my Twitter, I’ve taken a deep plunge into European baseball. Specifically, the leagues that are at a high enough level to be considered professional. As far as those leagues go there is one league that stands head and shoulders above all others when it comes to availability and accessibility, the Czech Republic’s Extraliga. The wealth of information available from the league itself and amazing sites like Baseball Stat CZ has made getting into the league incredibly easy. It has also helped that just about every game is streamed and easy to find. Mostly, EXL is fun to watch, interesting, and full of wonderful stories.
For me, the biggest story so far in the 2021 season has been Sokol Hluboká’s dominant ace, Jan Novák. After spending his first nine seasons in EXL with Kotlářka Praha, Novák jumped ship to Sokol for this season. He was dominant from the word go and has not let up in any of his seven starts. The six-foot-tall lefty has commanded the mound like no other pitcher in the league and is on a path for a historic EXL season.
Novák has always had the talent we’re seeing in 2021. He’s been one of the best pitchers in EXL throughout his entire time there. He had such promise that he found his way to the Baltimore Orioles organization and the GCL Orioles for two seasons. He never made it out of the Gulf Coast League, but he was good in those two years. In his second season, there were obvious growing pains, but the talent was always present and it was clear even then that if a team stuck with Novák for the long haul they would be getting a quality pitcher out of the process.
As is becoming the case more and more often, Major League Baseball’s loss has been an unaffiliated league’s gain. Since returning to EXL full time in 2017 Novák has consistently been at or near the top of the EXL pitching leaderboard in every major statistic. This has culminated in a 2021 season where he is pitching at a level beyond anything the EXL seems to have seen before. In 54.0 innings pitched, as a starter, he has a 0.33 ERA, 0.778 WHIP, 1.82 FIP, and a 262 FIP-. Let’s take a second and marvel at that last stat, with a baseline of 100 that means Novák has been 162% better than any other pitcher in EXL.
Funnily enough, some of Novák’s peripherals aren’t better than his Coronavirus shortened 2020 season. For instance, his K/9 is 12.3 in 2021 while it was 17.0 in 2020. He completely baffled opposing hitters to the tune of a .092 BAA last year while this year he’s still been decimating lineups but not quite as much, .141. The main difference this year is an easy one, he’s still putting up great peripherals, but he’s also not giving up any runs. A total of two earned runs so far on the season. It’s easy to see with all the numbers listed so far why Novák leads EXL with a czWAR of 2.7 and is on pace to set a single-season record for ERA.
Novák isn’t doing anything differently this season, at least not on a grand scale. He’s still attacking hitters with a fourseam fastball, changeup, slider combo. The fourseamer comes in in the low 90s, while the changeup has a good velocity difference to it, and his slider has good sweep and bite. It’s not that the stuff Novák brings to the ballpark every day has changed, rather his approach has become more refined. Watching him work over EXL hitters it’s clear he has spent a lot of time working on sequencing. He’s not just throwing raw stuff at hitters any longer. Now he’s using his repertoire to keep them off balance and putting batters away rather easily with great location and deception.
At 27-years-old the sun has likely set on Novák getting anything resembling another shot in affiliated ball. Perhaps he’ll get a winter league or summer Asian team to take a flyer on him. One thing is certain, he’s earned whatever good fortune comes his way. Hard work has turned Novák into the best pitcher the Czech Republic and EXL have to offer. His story is a great one and hopefully, moving forward more people will pay attention to what he’s doing this season.
Lead photo courtesy of Marcela Alexa – Photobank CBA