There’s a common thread among fans of all baseball teams — and really this would generally apply to fans of any sports team, I’d think — in which we all cling onto some sort of intangible potential for a player for years and years. At some point, whether it be as a prospect or for a stretch in the majors, or both, said player displayed potential to be an impact player, and they just couldn’t recapture that. Think Jackie Bradley Jr. or Andrew Benintendi or Nathan Eovaldi, among many, many other examples over the years with the Red Sox. It’s a frustrating experience as a fan to have that hope and continue to look for it, only to be disappointed again and again and again. Over the weekend, when the Red Sox traded Brandon Workman and Heath Hembree to the Phillies, they got the Phillies version of this phenomenon in Nick Pivetta.
If you were to ask any Phillies fan about this feeling and players with whom they’ve experienced it, chances are it would not take all that long to get to Pivetta. The righty, now 27 (he turns 28 next February), has been a major topic of conversation among Phillies fans for a few years now, at least if we go by the surprisingly large number I follow on the Twitter machine. Whether it’s been sincere hope that he’ll make good on that potential or just starting to give up on the potential or making fun of the people who still believe in the potential, Pivetta has been a major topic of conversation in that city, and it all goes back to 2018.
It’s not as if Pivetta came up as some sort of top prospect in all of baseball. He was a former fourth round pick who ended up in the Phillies organization in 2015 when they traded Jonathan Papelbon to the Nationals. He pitched well in the minors, but then struggled pretty mightily in 2017 as a rookie. Then, 2018 came. In that season, Pivetta’s ERA wasn’t really anything to write home about, coming in at 4.77, which was 18 percent worse than the league-average pitcher by ERA-. However, he struck out over 27 percent of batters, walked under eight percent and kept his homers in check to help get him to a 3.80 FIP (91 FIP-; nine percent better than league-average) and a 3.40 DRA (76 DRA-).
Those numbers made fans, particularly those who leaned towards more stat-oriented analysis, excited for a potential breakout in 2019. If you play fantasy, you certainly heard his name mentioned again and again in February and March of that year among sleepers to target in the later rounds. Except, well, he didn’t repeat himself. His strikeout rate fell by six percentage points and his walk rate rose by two percentage points. His ERA-, FIP- and DRA- rose by four, 30, and 28 points, respectively. Instead of building off those strong peripherals and potential, he took a step back, got removed from the rotation and demoted to Triple-A for a bit. This year, he’s only thrown 5 2⁄3 innings in the majors, all as a reliever, and he’s been even worse.
So, that is why a lot of Phillies fans are now beyond hope for Pivetta and onto the acceptance stage. Except, now he’s in Boston, and Red Sox fans need some excitement about the new players. I already talked about the prospect Connor Seabold, but today I want to try and figure out what changed from 2018 to 2019, however hopeless a return to that form may be.
Looking around at his numbers between the two years, the first thing that totally jumped out to me was the performance of his fastball. Pivetta is the kind of pitcher who needs his fastball and he leans heavily on the mid-90s offering, throwing it right around 50 percent of the time in both 2018 and 2019. The velocity did not change significantly between the two years, but he did get fewer swings and misses while allowing much louder contact. In 2018, the pitch wasn’t dominant, but both his wOBA and expected wOBA on the pitch were in good to acceptable ranges. In 2018, the wOBA jumped 98 points to .460 and the expected wOBA jumped 109 points to .443.
So, yeah. Clearly there’s a major issue here. A guy who throws his fastball literally half the time can’t have players hitting like 2019 Christian Yelich (.442 wOBA) every time he throws that pitch. It makes those more base numbers make sense. So, what happened? The change seems to be the ability to work on his arm side, which is the inner half to right-handed hitters. He needs to own that zone with the fastball, and in 2018 he worked that part of the plate more frequently than he did in 2019, as you can see in those linked zone plots. On top of that, hitters were not swinging as much at these pitches, and when they did swing they were putting it in play. This is a big reason his whiff rate on pitches in the zone went from 54 percent to 58 percent between the two seasons.
The fastball is the big difference between these two seasons and certainly the biggest issue the team needs to iron out, but there are a couple more I want to highlight. One is simply with his pitch usage. In 2018, Pivetta leaned heavily on the fastball, of course, but also threw a bunch of curveballs and sliders. Then, in 2019, he started throwing many more curveballs and fewer sliders. To be fair, it’s not terrible to throw more curveballs because that has consistently been his best pitch. However, this change meant that he was throwing his top two pitches 85 percent of the time, which just can’t work. My first thought was that this had to do with the midseason shift to the bullpen — his slider is his go-to pitch against lefties, as his changeup is sparsely thrown — but this usage was consistent throughout the season. Pivetta’s fastball/curveball combination is not good enough to lean that heavily on just those two offerings.
The final part of this I want to note is one that I tried to find a mechanical issue for, but could not. As I’ve mentioned, that is not my strong suit. That said, it is worth mentioning that there was a massive change in effectiveness from the windup for Pivetta from 2018 to 2019. In 2018, he allowed a paltry .291 wOBA with a 30 percent strikeout rate with the bases empty. The next season, those numbers finished at .387 and 21 percent. Those are stark, stark differences and suggest he was just putting himself into trouble earlier in his starts.
Despite being pitcher-starved, the Red Sox are not going to give Pivetta a chance to make an impact right away. There’s a chance this is service time-related — in which case that sucks, both morally and because there’s little evidence Pivetta is worth changing strategy for an extra year of control — but it also makes sense to try and fix some of these issues before getting him to the majors and potentially crushing his confidence more. The fastball has to be the number one kink that they are going to be trying to work out, but focusing on using his slider — or a different third pitch — more often and also ironing out his issues in the windup should be on the table as well.
Ultimately, there’s a good chance the quest to get back to 2018 Pivetta is futile. Just ask any Phillies fan you can find. That said, we need something to hang our hats on, so it’s our turn to spend a year or two hoping the righty can make good on that potential he showed once upon a time.