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Get ready for Nick Pivetta’s breakout 2019

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Nick Pivetta was better than you think in 2018, and things should turn around for him in 2019, too.

MLB: Miami Marlins at Philadelphia Phillies Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

One look at the back of Nick Pivetta’s baseball card would tell you he wasn’t a terribly effective pitcher in 2018.

In 164 innings pitched (32 starts), he put up a 4.77 ERA and lost 14 games for the Phillies, winning only seven. And in his brief two-year career thus far, Pivetta is 15-24 with a 5.33 ERA in 58 starts. Those are not numbers to celebrate.

Of course, modern baseball doesn’t look at won-loss records and, to a degree, doesn’t value ERA as highly as it once did. If one looks at virtually all of Pivetta’s other numbers, they tell the tale of a pitcher who should have been one of the 20-25 best starters in Major League Baseball last season.

Pivetta struck out 27.1% of hitters last season, 13th-highest out of 57 qualified MLB starters. His 10.32 K/9 was 12th, he had a ground ball rate of 46.7%, 15th in baseball, and his 31.9% hard-hit rate was tied for 18th.

In other words, Pivetta made a lot of guys swing and miss and forced more ground balls and weak contact than most, all factors that should have given him a better ERA than 4.77.

In many ways, Pivetta was simply unlucky. He allowed a batting average on balls in play (BABIP) of .326 which was highest among qualified starters last season. Baseball Prospectus found Pivetta had the largest difference between his 4.77 ERA and his Deserved Run Average (3.40) of any pitcher with at least 100 innings of work (stat via George Bissell). His 3.40 DRA was 32nd out of 140 pitchers, yet his ERA ranked 111th.

Pivetta’s SIERA of 3.51 was 13th in baseball, better than Charlie Morton, Zack Greinke, J.A. Happ and Mike Foltynewicz, and only slightly worse than his teammate Aaron Nola, who finished one spot ahead of him. And his K%-BB% of 19.9% was also 13th in baseball.

However, Pivetta is not perfect and there are still a number of areas that were major stumbling blocks for him last season.

Pitching effectively with runners on base was an issue. Matt Winkelman from PhilliesMinorThoughts.com ran the numbers and found Pivetta’s profile changed in some noticeable ways when there were ducks on the pond.

In other words, while his walks went down by 2.0%, his strikeouts were also down 7.3%. That’s a big number. Pivetta simply has to do better at getting hitters to swing and miss with runners on base. His home runs per nine went up with runners on, which will also need to be addressed, but Pivetta also saw an increase in his ground ball rate, which should translate into a lower BABIP. But as you can see, his BABIP went up, meaning he did not get the luck or defensive help he needed with runners on.

A recent piece by the Athletic’s Meghan Montemurro and Eno Sarris theoried that the right-hander also pitched differently when there was a defensive shift behind him.

It’s clear that Pivetta pitched differently with the shift behind him, especially to left-handers, leaving more pitches over the middle of the plate and fewer on the outside corner. The whole idea of the shift, as Montemurro and Sarris point out, is that pitchers continue to pitch the same way no matter where the fielders are located.

A key to improving his results could also be increased use of his slider. Below is a list of how Pivetta used his pitches via Fangraphs.

Pivetta used his curveball a lot more last season, 22%, up from 15% the year before, which makes sense given that hitters batted just .208 with a .289 slugging percentage against that pitch. However, his slider usage remained consistent at 17.0% last year, up from just 15.0% in 2017. According to Brooks Baseball, hitters batted just .231 with a .365 slugging percentage against the slider, certainly a much better number than the .292 average and .477 slugging percentage hitters had against his four-seam fastball. If he can reduce his fastball usage a bit and throw his slider more effectively for strikes, Pivetta should see better results.

The bigger key would be Pivetta’s ability to throw an effective changeup against lefties, something he’s trying to do a bit in the spring. Neutralizing their ability to sit on Pivetta fastballs would be a huge step forward.

The bottom line is Pivetta’s peripherals tell the tale of a pitcher who should have received better results in 2018.

And there are a lot of reasons to believe he will break out as a potential All-Star and one of baseball’s 25 best starters in 2019.