Bias be damned, I truly don’t think I can recommend going to see a game at Citizens Bank Park enough. I’ve only been to maybe a third of the active ballparks in the game today, but the sheer watchability factor of any game at CBP in just about any section - on-field talent aside - has basically been unmatched for me.
One spot I hadn’t been in prior to Thursday’s home opener was in left-center, section 147, just to the side of where the players made their “Leadoff Walk” entrance onto the field through the stands. Out there, you lose a bit of warning track (I thought Maikel Franco’s triple was a home run because both ball and Lewis Brinson disappeared from view at just the right moment), but you gain an incredible view of pitch movement and, with varying parallax, the strike zone. If you like paying entirely too much attention to things that aren’t Gabe Kapler’s managerial moves, it’s a tremendous spot to sit in for a live game.
One alarmingly positive thing I was able to key in on from that spot was how good Nick Pivetta’s curveball and slider looked throughout his start. You were probably able to get a good idea of that from the broadcast, too, I’m sure, but something about the angle I had made it seem like the benders were capital-e Extra that day. As it turns out, that improvement really might’ve been more than visually apparent, and that could mean more good things ahead for Pivetta and the Phils.
In all, Pivetta threw 97 pitches Thursday, with 66 going for strikes (including 15 whiffs, which matched a career high). Nearly half (44, to be exact) were curveballs (23) or sliders (21), and those did a lot of damage: 11 combined whiffs! Here’s a visual breakdown of Pivetta used each of his three pitches Thursday, and the outcomes for each:
One expected trend immediately stands out: The breaking balls often came out when Pivetta was ahead in the count or on the verge of a strikeout. What’s more, Derek Dietrich and Justin Bour - the left-handed Marlins batters who saw action against Pivetta Thursday - faced down precisely zero sliders, likely because Pivetta’s slider acts more like a cutter than a wipeout. Or, at least, it has in the past.
To that first point, even if it was (potentially) closer to the forefront of Miami hitters’ minds that a curve or slider was coming as their count hit two strikes, they were still unable to do anything about it. Take, for one example, the biggest strikeout of the nine Pivetta racked up on the day: A swinging K of Cameron Maybin, the tying run at the plate in the fourth, with runners on second and third after consecutive two-out hits.
Not the prettiest curve Pivetta threw by a long shot, even if it ultimately still nibbled the zone - he misses Alfaro’s spot to the opposite edge of the plate - but the depth is essentially perfect. At its apex, the pitch is at the numbers; as it crosses the plate, it’s just below Maybin’s knees; as Alfaro snags it, it’s barely above the dirt. Maybin’s ready for it and his swing is geared for it, but he still can’t make contact. Inning over, threat extinguished.
A couple weeks back, I took a quick look at the curve characteristics of Jake Arrieta, Jerad Eickhoff and Aaron Nola. I cruised over Pivetta, mostly because the measurement of his curveball simply didn’t seem to stand out. Well, if the early returns are any indicator or precursor, that’s about to change.
That, in line graph form, depicts an extra 5.2 inches of vertical movement on top of 2017’s average curveball drop, and nearly 4 inches of added vertical drop to Pivetta’s slider, making it function more like a slurve than the previously-thought cutter.
For the sake of comparison, here is Pivetta’s first career strikeout from April 2017, also on a curveball to the third base side of the plate.
Both of the above curves register at 79 MPH, and though the difference doesn’t immediately stand out, it sure does look like the curve that strikes out Adrian Gonzalez at Dodger Stadium has a lower apex than the one from Thursday. Could be confirmation bias, but I think the difference is borderline apparent, visually, in real-time, which is fairly significant!
There’s another potential change happening behind the scenes that may also be a result of this apparent breaking ball improvement. Through two starts and 170 pitches, Pivetta has yet to throw a changeup, making him a three-pitch pitcher at the moment. His change didn’t grade out particularly well in 2017, so it’s possible the pitch has been demoted to “show-me” status. If these enhancements of the curveball and slider are real and repeatable, and the fastball stays at a heavy 94-96, he won’t need to lean on that fourth pitch so much after all.
The club has believed in Pivetta throughout his time in the organization, even as he languished through a 2017 season of six-plus ERA and too many homers. This early two-start sample - helped in large part by Thursday, of course - has yielded zero home runs and twelve strikeouts to two walks, along with overall weaker batted ball contact that nonetheless still has hitters sporting a .375 BABIP against him. Too early to get too excited? Maybe. But the potential that Pivetta’s believers both inside the organization and out have touted and stood for may, hopefully, be nearing the breakout stage. His next few starts - likely against the Reds at home, then at the Rays or Braves, then home against the Pirates - will tell us a lot more about just how much more we should get our hopes up.