Every time Nick Pivetta turns in a good performance for the Phillies—hell, every time he throws a strike—it’s all the sweeter when you remember how he got here.
Jonathan Papelbon, for whom Pivetta was acquired from the Nationals in a summer 2015 trade, clearly wasn’t the Phils’ biggest problem in the four years he played for the team. In fact, he was good to great in all four of those seasons, making two all-star teams and racking up 7.5 bWAR. But as an expensive veteran closer for an aging team on the decline, he embodied the misguided approach of the front office. And his disdain for the fans and overall unpleasantness made it tough to appreciate the good work he did on the field. (On the other hand, his subsequent misadventures in Washington—including terrible performance and a dugout altercation with franchise player Bryce Harper—were pretty delightful.)
Pivetta joined the organization as a power-armed lottery ticket during his age-22 season. He had put up strong numbers in high-A, then struggled in the Eastern League, where over 10 starts in two organizations he walked 28 against just 31 strikeouts. Returning to Reading in 2016, he was much better, with a 3.41 ERA and a far more palatable 111:41 strikeout to walk mark. Nor did he look overmatched in a five-start cameo at triple-A in late summer.
After three strong starts back at Lehigh Valley to begin 2017, Pivetta made his major league debut on April 30 against the eventual NL champion Dodgers. He took the loss, allowing four doubles and a homer among nine hits in five innings. Pivetta made three more starts in early May, leaving in or after the fifth inning in each, before being optioned back to the IronPigs.
He was recalled again in early June, earning his first big-league win over the Braves—the first of three victories at Atlanta’s expense for the season. The rest of his rookie season was a seesaw of boom and bust. On the plus side: a seven-inning, no-run, nine-strikeout June performance against the Red Sox, followed by a ten-strikeout game against the Cardinals. Soon after, he fired two seven-inning early July starts against the Mets (one hit) and Padres (nine Ks). Pivetta finished strong, winning his last three September starts with a combined 17 innings in which he allowed two runs on 11 hits and eight walks while striking out 19. He finished second to staff ace Aaron Nola with 140 strikeouts and 9.5 per 9.
But Pivetta’s command came and went all season long, and the off nights were really ugly. Between those gems against St. Louis and the Mets, Pivetta was crushed for six runs in 2.2 innings at Arizona. After the San Diego start, the Brewers roughed him up for nine runs in five innings. His Coors Field debut in August saw the Rockies put up eight runs in 2.2 frames. The Marlins smacked Pivetta for six runs in 1.1 innings on Aug. 22, then again on Sept. 12 (seven runs, five innings). All told, Pivetta allowed five runs or more in eight of his 26 starts. He was particularly homer-prone, surrendering 25 in just 133 innings.
In a year when he ideally wouldn’t have seen the majors until September if at all, Pivetta put up a 6.02 ERA and an ERA+ of 70. A .336 BABIP suggests some bad luck, as does his 4.87 FIP, but we’re really talking degree here.
As winter draws near, the Phils’ 2018 rotation features Nola and a whole of lot of who knows. Jerad Eickhoff and Vince Velasquez are likely to land spots. It’s probable that management will add two veteran starters through trade or free agency, leaving Pivetta to compete with Ben Lively, Zach Eflin, Jake Thompson, Tom Eshelman and others for depth positioning.
His flashes of dominance suggest Pivetta has more upside than most if not all those guys, and the power arsenal hints at a plausible bullpen fallback if his offspeed pitches don’t develop further. Like so much about the 2017 Phillies, Pivetta merged overall lousy results with real grounds to hope for better days to come.