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2021 in Review: Nick Pivetta exceeded expectations

He wasn’t great my any stretch, but he was serviceable.

Division Series - Tampa Bay Rays v Boston Red Sox - Game Three Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Welcome to our 2021 Boston Red Sox in Review series. This is, as you can probably guess, where we will be reviewing all of the players who made at least a modest impact on the Red Sox in 2021. Every week day we’ll be deep diving into one player, describing the season in a sentence, looking at the positives from the year as well as negatives, looking back at our one big question from our season preview and looking ahead to the 2022 season. Today we look at the year that was for Nick Pivetta.

2021 in one sentence

Nick Pivetta came in as a total wildcard with a recent track record that suggested doom, but instead was a serviceable back-end arm with flashes of more while sticking in the rotation all year.

The Positives

This was kind of a strange season for Pivetta in the sense that I really feel like this was an overall positive season for him without having to think too much about it, but nothing in particular stands out in any major way. For the most part, he was just solid at everything without really excelling, and he was able to exceed expectations. He flashed brilliance at times, including a handful of truly brilliant starts in the season, but he had enough bad outings that made his season just league-average at the end of the day. Given what we were expecting, that he made 30 starts and was league-average is a massive win and a positive in its own right, but it’s hard to say it without it sounding like a back-handed compliment, which is not what it’s meant to be.

If we do want to dig in a little bit deeper, I would look to Pivetta’s ability to miss bats. Granted, his propensity to baserunners does make him a prime candidate for his strikeouts per nine innings to overstate his actual performance, and his over 10 strikeouts per nine in 2021 doesn’t accurately portray his strikeout rate. Even so, he was still good in this regard, finishing just outside the top 30 percent of the league with his 26.5 percent strikeout rate. It’s the highest of his career.

And in combination with that strikeout rate, he also induced weaker contact than we’ve become accustomed to. This isn’t to say he excelled in this area either, because Pivetta is always going to induce a fair amount of hard contact, but he was able to avoid the kind of contact that can get him in consistent trouble. Despite being well below-average in things like hard-hit rate and average exit velocity per Baseball Savant, Pivetta managed to be in the top half of baseball in terms of expected ERA and every other expected stat, which are based on batted balls.

Pivetta also came equipped almost every time out with an elite curveball, which isn’t exactly a change for him but still nice to see all the same. As he largely pitches without a changeup, this curveball serves as his offspeed offering, and it does the trick overall. Again per Baseball Savant, this was a dominant pitch in 2021. Its 26 percent strikeout rate is merely good rather than great, but it was nearly impossible to square up. Savant measures hitters’ wOBA and expected wOBA (both on the same scale as OBP) against individual pitches, and those numbers on Pivetta’s curveball came in at .221 and .235, respectively. This was by far his best pitch, and is one of the better pitches in terms of lack of damage on the whole staff.

We can’t go through this without talking about his work in the postseason, right? Pivetta entered the hearts of Red Sox fans everywhere with his postseason run, which he finished with a 2.63 ERA over 13 23 innings. That includes a dominant performance in an extra inning win over the Rays when he tossed four scoreless innings in a 13-inning win for Boston. He followed that up with a big five-inning performance out of the bullpen against the Astros, though that game ended in a loss. Still, Pivetta played up when the games mattered most, and that’s the kind of thing that doesn’t get forgotten.

The Negatives

I mentioned above that Pivetta is prone to baserunners, and as you may guess a big part of that is the fact that he just issues too many walks. While his stuff is impressive at its best and misses plenty of bats, it also lives outside the zone at times and that in turn leads to walks. In 2021, the righty walked just under 10 percent of his opponents, tying his highest rate which was set back in his rookie year in 2017. He actually did hit the zone at an above-average rate, but he couldn’t get chases out of the zone and that can often be just as bad. If he is ever going to take the next step, limiting those free passes will be the first item on the to-do list.

Minnesota Twins v Boston Red Sox Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

A bad thing to combine with a propensity for walks is a decrease in production when pitching with runners on base, but that was exactly the case for Pivetta this past year. Once he had to start pitching out of the stretch, things started to go downhill and he allowed a .337 wOBA in those situations. He often exacerbated those situations with a walk, posting a walk rate over 10 percent with runners on, and he also struck out fewer batters and gave up the same number of homers as he did with the bases empty despite facing 127 fewer opponents. It’s not what you want.

The Big Question

Can Nick Pivetta keep the ball in the yard?

Pivetta is a fly ball pitcher with command issues, so he’s never going to be able to keep his home run rate safely in better-than-league-average territory. That said, he made strides in this area this past season and got his home run rate down to league-average. Considering his career norms, which are typically much worse, we’ll count this as a yes.

2022 and Beyond

Pivetta is still under team control with the Red Sox for another few years, getting to arbitration for the first time this winter. Barring a surprise trade, he will be part of the Boston rotation next season, likely as the number four. I think it’s fair to expect a similar kind of production moving forward for the next few years, with an average overall performance that at times is much better and at other times much worse. That’s a useful player as well as they aren’t given too important of a role.