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The good and bad from Nick Pivetta’s Red Sox debut

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It was mostly good, but let’s not get carried away.

Baltimore Orioles v Boston Red Sox Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

The Red Sox were in an advantageous position, as far as these things go, at the trade deadline as one of the few obvious sellers in a market full of buyers. They didn’t go all-in there and traded role players rather than stars, but they still overall did very well. In total, Boston received six players in those deals, of whom we know five. The Josh Osich trade is still technically for a player to be named later, although the two sides have already agreed on the player coming to Boston.

Of the five players we know, I think there’s a pretty fair argument that Pivetta is set up to be the worst of them, or at least the least exciting. Part of that is certainly the fact that it is easier to be excited about players we haven’t seen than ones we have, but also Pivetta is a 27-year-old with a career ERA north of 5.00. On the other hand, he is also the first of the group that we get to see against major-league competition, and there’s a certain excitement that comes with that. Said excitement is boosted when the player is joining a position group, in this case a rotation, that is literally among the worst many of us have ever seen. We, as a collective group of Red Sox fans, are starving for some excitement in starting pitchers.

And with Pivetta’s debut on Tuesday at Fenway, we got it. We clearly weren’t going to learn anything too much about a guy with almost 400 career innings entering this start, in which he was going up against a bad team on a very cold streak, but we got the results we were looking for. The righty tossed five innings and allowed just one run while striking out eight, allowing four hits (all singles) and walking three. There are some things I will pick apart a bit below and I certainly don’t think he was as good as the stat line suggests, but on a sliding scale Pivetta was quite obviously on the positive end of the spectrum.

Baltimore Orioles v Boston Red Sox Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Before we get into some of the issues I had with this outing, though, we must start with the clear positive: His stuff. The strikeout stuff — which led him to setting down eight in five innings, and impressive performance even against a team that has been among the worst in baseball for the last couple of weeks — is the reason he tantalized Phillies fans for so many years and frustrated them just as much when things never worked out. It’s also, presumably, the biggest reason the Red Sox were interested in adding him to their organization. Overall, Pivetta finished the game with 14 whiffs on 96 pitches, and 34 percent of the time an Oriole swung the bat he came up empty.

Most impressive about the righty’s stuff was clearly his breaking stuff, and more specifically the slider. Pivetta does throw a curveball as well, but by his own admission he didn’t have a great feel for it in this one. Even despite that, he did spin a few impressive ones, particularly later in the outing. The slider was the star of the show, though. This was his most-used secondary offering, barely edging out the curveball, and it was dominant. Pivetta threw the slider (or slide johnson, as Dennis Eckersley called it at one point) 22 times (23 percent of his overall pitch count) and got half of his whiffs on that pitch. This usage in itself was an important adjustment for Pivetta, who has consistently thrown it about half as often through his career.

I say that because Pivetta really struggled a bit when he did allow balls into play. To be fair to him he wasn’t really punished all that much. As I mentioned above, he only allowed four hits and they were all singles. That said, it could have been worse. Through the course of his outing he allowed ten balls to be put into play, all but one of which came off the bat at at least 90 mph and half of which were at least 94.5 mph. For what it’s worth, 95 mph is generally considered hard-hit, so he was a rounding error off from a 50 percent hard-hit rate.

Now, we obviously don’t have the sample size in this one start to really care all that much about that specific rate. That said, the general idea of him allowing too much hard contact in this outing can’t be swept away either. During his aforementioned tantalizing but frustrating career with the Phillies, it was that hard contact that generally did him in. Pivetta has always shown the stuff and his control has typically been manageable, but he’s simply been hurt on balls in play. In his career, he’s been worse than league-average in BABIP and homer-to-fly-ball ratio (pitching in Philadelphia’s small home park was clearly part of the issue here, to be fair) in all four seasons and was better than league-average in hard-hit rate only once.

And in this start, the issue came back to his fastball. This is the most important pitch for Pivetta to figure out going forward, and it was the pitch he threw the most in this outing by a large margin. Tossing the heat 51 percent of the time, he did get six whiffs on 21 swings, which is nothing to sneeze at. I don’t want to make it sound like he didn’t throw it well at all. He did, however, make a bunch of mistakes that could have been punished more than they were. Overall, the average exit velocity of the seven balls in play against the offering was 96.5 mph, and as you can see below he left a whole lot of them in the middle of the zone. Pivetta needs to work up in the zone with this pitch, but at least in this start he was missing down a bit too much.

via Baseball Savant

There’s also the issue of Pivetta’s changeup. Similarly to Tanner Houck, who has also provided us with some rare optimism for a 2020 Red Sox starter, Pivetta doesn’t really have a great offspeed pitch to go to against lefties. He threw only five changeups in this outing, and three of them were noncompetitive pitches way up and outside. The other two were solid down in the zone on the outer half of the plate, but one was fouled off and the other was put into play for an out. Against the Orioles, not really having a changeup was fine, but that may an issue going forward.

All things considered, and factoring in my low expectations given his poor career track record, Pivetta was a major plus in his debut with the team. He got a ton of whiffs and showed off a slider that can be a legitimate weapon, and above all else he pitched five innings with only one run. Results rule at the end of the day, and the results here were great. That being said, I don’t want to get too carried away with one start. I’m interested in seeing him against a better lineup, I’m interested to see if he continues to use his slider as his preferred secondary and I’m interested to see if he can command the fastball a little bit better. It’s a good first step to be sure, but it’s not the last one.