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2019 Phillies in review: Nick Pivetta

Perhaps the player that most exemplifies the 2019 Phillies

New York Mets v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

The numbers:

93 23 IP, 30 G (13 GS), 21.1 K%, 9.3 BB%, 5.38 ERA (5.47 FIP), 0.0 fWAR

The good:

On June 8, Cincinnati Reds second baseman Derek Dietrich batted with two out in the ninth inning and hit a groundball to Rhys Hoskins at first, who then touched first and recorded the final out of the game. It was a 4-1 Phillies win, one that put them 10 games over .500 at 37-27. The pitcher on the mound shook hands with catcher J.T. Realmuto and accepted the congratulations of his team for twirling a 105 pitch complete game, something that rarely happened under manager Gabe Kapler. A Gatorade shower was even in order for the man doing a postgame interview.

That pitcher was Nick Pivetta. He would celebrate a job well done that night, his head hitting the pillow with the thought that perhaps his season was beginning to turn around. After all, with the performance, his ERA dropped under five for the first time in the season. It was the end of a 20 inning streak of solid performances in which he allowed only 12 hits, 4 runs, two walks and struck out 21 batters. It was as if the preseason prognosticators were finally able to crow about how right they were....

The bad:

...but oh, how wrong they would be.

Let’s look at some of the worse numbers as a starter only:

  • a 5.74 ERA
  • an .876 OPS allowed
  • a .362 wOBA
  • 16 home runs in 69 innings as a starter

He just wasn’t good. The thing that made it all the more depressing is in July, when he was demoted, he was angry about it. After those numbers had shown how poorly he was pitching as a starter, the move caught him off guard.

“Yes,” Pivetta said when asked if he was surprised by the move.

Really? A 5.74 ERA and no signs of improvement up to that point and he really thinks he should have stayed there? C’mon man.

He was the preseason darling of pretty much everyone to be the breakout player on the Phillies. There were so many articles about it. So. Many.

Then the season started and our eyes were being opened. A lot of people noticed that Pivetta’s stuff had changed. Fangraphs caught it. Twice. Right before he was sent to the bullpen, Rian Watt discussed how Pivetta’s curveball wasn’t as good as it was in 2018.

I won’t speculate about the ultimate cause of the change back to 2017’s shape that you see here here, not having spoken to the man, but I will say this: In 2018, right-handers facing Nick Pivetta had to contend with his big swinging hook up and in on their hands. This year, they don’t. And they’ve noticed: After posting a .308 wOBA against Pivetta in 2018, righties have beat up on him to the tune of a .385 this year even as lefties have made only modest gains, from .339 to .349.

It was also noted in the other Fangraphs article written in mid-May how Pivetta wasn’t able to maintain his velocity throughout a game, something that should have been extremely concerning to the coaching staff. He was viewed by that writer as a perfect candidate to be a multi-inning relief weapon.

The most interesting case, the player I’d most like to see switched to relief, is Nick Pivetta. Pivetta has two years of semi-effective starting under his belt, so he seems like an odd candidate to ship off to bullpen purgatory, but his poor performance in 2019 has him cooling his heels in the minors, and the Phillies bullpen could use another arm. His stuff is exactly the kind that plays well in relief — his fastball sits at 95 mph early in starts, and his primary breaking pitch, a slow, giant-break curveball, provides a unique look. In fact, no curveball in baseball has both more horizontal and vertical break than Pivetta’s hook. If that doesn’t sound like the kind of pitch that a reliever could use, I don’t know what to tell you.

This isn’t the first time this has been mentioned and it certainly won’t be the last.

Unless we are able to get in Pivetta’s head, we’ll likely never know what his issues were last year. It’s a shame too, since the stuff is certainly good enough to be a starter. But for whatever reason, the mental side of pitching is something that has still remained elusive.

The future:

Perhaps no player currently on the Phillies for 2020 will have his future in the organization scrutinized than Nick Pivetta. With Young and Kapler both gone, Pivetta will have an opportunity to build new relationships with Joe Girardi and Bryan Price. Based on what we’ve heard during the season, these coaches might be more up Pivetta’s alley than what he was used to before.

With that one minor league option remaining, it wouldn’t be surprising if Pivetta begins the season in the minors. With two spots in the rotation already locked up by Nola and Arrieta and a third likely being cemented by Zach Eflin, there are two spots that the Phillies could upgrade. If Pivetta is in the majors, that means those spots weren’t upgraded.

There is almost more value in trying to make Pivetta that relief weapon discussed earlier. Turning him into my favorite reliever, Seth Lugo, who has a similar profile, would be something that could turn into a valuable weapon late in a game. Having the ability to get more than 2-3 outs per game would be of tremendous value to Girardi’s bullpen. On the other hand, the team could be tired of hoping Pivetta gains the mental fortitude to be an effective major league pitcher and could look to deal him for a similar “buy-low” talent that could fill an area of need. It’ll be interesting how the team looks to play it through this offseason.