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How Nick Pivetta has broken out early in the Phillies’ rotation

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The 25-year-old has had three impressive outings to begin 2018. Here is how.

MLB: Cincinnati Reds at Philadelphia Phillies Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

After the signing of Jake Arrieta and the injury to Jerad Eickhoff, the top four in the Phillies’ rotation was set. Aaron Nola and Arrieta would lead the rotation and be followed by two wild cards in Vince Velasquez and Nick Pivetta.

Velasquez and Pivetta, especially Velasquez, have been chronicled for their inconsistencies and tendencies to throw a lot of pitches. We got a 26-game sample size from Pivetta last season, and he fit the Velasquez mold quite well.

This season, however, Pivetta looks to be working more effectively and efficiently, even if it has not been a huge leap forward. His first start resulted in the first win of the season for the Phillies, although Pivetta’s four innings, three runs, two walks, three strikeouts and 73 pitches did not factor into the decision.

Since then, manager Gabe Kapler seems to have developed a longer leash for his starting pitchers. Pivetta’s second start saw him go 5 2/3 innings and throw 97 pitches against Miami, allowing no runs and no walks while striking out nine and picking up his first win of the season. His third time out resulted in 103 pitches over seven innings of surrendering two runs on five hits and no walks with seven strikeouts.

So now we must ask, what has Pivetta done differently this season to look as good as he has?

To begin to answer this, let’s look at his pitch usage, average velocity and average horizontal and vertical movement.

Nick Pivetta 2017 | Courtesy of BrooksBaseball

Pitch Frequency Velocity (MPH) Hmovement (in.) Vmovement (in.)
Pitch Frequency Velocity (MPH) Hmovement (in.) Vmovement (in.)
Fourseam 66.15% 94.71 -5.96 10.24
Changeup 4.42% 87.04 -7.88 5.97
Slider 14.15% 83.82 3.34 0.65
Curveball 15.28% 79.11 6.97 -5.72

Nick Pivetta 2018 | Courtesy of BrooksBaseball

Pitch Frequency Velocity (MPH) Hmovement (in.) Vmovement (in.)
Pitch Frequency Velocity (MPH) Hmovement (in.) Vmovement (in.)
Fourseam 57.88% 95.07 -5.98 9.34
Sinker 1.10% 93.63 -11.48 5.39
Changeup 0.73% 88.13 -9.41 4.46
Slider 14.29% 82.73 5.26 -3.01
Curveball 26.01% 79.33 7.95 -10.9

At first glance, you’ll see that the fastball has not changed much. Despite using it less frequently at this point and a bit of a change in the vertical movement — most likely caused by a slight release point adjustment — it is basically the same pitch with the same velocity.

What jumps out, however, is the usage and movement of his offspeed pitches. Pivetta is using his curveball nearly 11% more than he did last season with a decent jump in horizontal movement and a drastic one in vertical movement. The same can be said for his slider, although he is using that at about the same rate as last season up to this point.

A number not shown in the above charts is that Pivetta abandoned his slider completely in his first start of the season in Atlanta, arguably his worst outing. He then went on to throw the pitch 21 times against Miami and 18 times against Cincinnati.

Staying on the idea of pitch usage, Pivetta, in his first start, was a two-pitch pitcher. He used his fastball 54 times and curveball 19 times. Judging by his line in the next two outings, you can probably tell he mixed his arsenal much better. In the home opener, Pivetta threw 53 fastballs, 21 sliders and 23 curveballs. Finally, in his most recent and best start so far, he tossed 51 fastballs, three sinkers, two changeups, 18 sliders and 29 curveballs.

Moving from pitch usage directly to raw stats, it is now easier to see how Pivetta has put up the numbers he has through three starts. He is striking out 10.26 batters per nine innings while walking just 1.08. That comes out to 9.50 strikeouts per walk.

The improvement of his pitches and what looks to be an adjusted motion and release point have kept hitters off balance thus far. Pivetta’s soft contact percentage is up slightly from last year — 15.9% to 16.3% — and his medium contact percentage has risen as well — 48.6% to 62.8%. What arises from the increase in those two numbers is the decrease in hard contact percentage. That number is down to 20.9% from 35.5% last season.

If Pivetta were to have qualified last season, he would have had the seventh-highest hard contact percentage. So far this season, he is 89th out of 94 qualifiers — Aaron Nola is 92nd at 16.3%, for your information.

Pivetta gets the ball tonight for his fourth start of the season and second at SunTrust Park in Atlanta. We’ll see if Pivetta has made the necessary adjustments to stifle the Braves or if Atlanta simply has his number.