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One Big Question: Can Nick Pivetta avoid barrels?

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The righty is looking for a career turnaround in 2021.

Boston Red Sox Spring Training Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Welcome to the annual Over The Monster One Big Question season preview series. Over the next 40(ish) days, we will be running through every player on the 40-man roster and identifying a key question for them pertaining to the coming season. This should run us up to the start of the season, at least as it is scheduled now. We will go through the roster in alphabetical order. For the most part, these will run Monday through Friday every week running up to the week before Opening Day, though expect some weekend posts mixed in as well as the 40-man is expected to continue to be altered before the start of the season. You can catch up with every post by following this link. Today we take a look at Nick Pivetta.

The Question: Can Nick Pivetta keep the ball in the yard?

Generally speaking, the Red Sox aren’t really the organization you think of when you think of places a pitcher can go to turn around his career. For hitters, absolutely. Ask Adrián Beltré about signing a pillow deal in Boston and parlaying that into a big payday. But for pitchers, there are typically other places to go. For Nick Pivetta, it wasn’t exactly his choice since he was traded, but he is hoping a change of scenery, with the change being Fenway, is just what the doctor ordered for his career.

The Red Sox acquired Pivetta as part of the deal that sent Brandon Workman and Heath Hembree to the Phillies last summer. Connor Seabold was probably the bigger part of the deal for Boston, but they are also looking to get something out of Pivetta as well. Now 28 (he’ll be 28 all summer) he is looking to turn around a career that to this point has shown potential, but not much in the way of results.

Any Phillies fan reading this is surely smiling to themselves at this point, laughing inside at another potential victim to the Pivetta hype train. It wasn’t all that long ago that he appeared to be a mainstay in the Philadelphia rotation. In 2018, the righty made 32 starts and while he finished with a rough 4.77 ERA (19 percent worse than league-average by park-adjusted ERA), he was safely better than average by FIP, striking out 27 percent of his opponents with a seven percent walk rate. Given that this was either his second season in the majors, Phillies fans (and fantasy players) were ready for a big breakout on the horizon as the results caught up with the peripherals.

Instead, the peripherals moved in the wrong direction and the results only got worse. Pivetta pitched to a 5.38 ERA in 2019 (with a FIP that actually came in a bit worse) and then spent most of 2020 at the Phillies Alternate Site before his trade to Boston. Of course, we know what happened in Boston. He made just two starts at the end of the year, but he looked very good. Pivetta allowed two runs over 10 innings of work with 13 strikeouts and five walks. That was only two starts, and generally speaking players with his track record don’t suddenly turn it around. That said, it’s not totally unprecedented, and change of scenery does work sometimes.

If it’s going to work for Boston, it’s going to be all about avoiding barrels and keeping the ball in the yard. His ability to miss bats and generally control the strike zone hasn’t been much of an issue for him. I mentioned the numbers in 2018 that caused so many people to hope for a breakout, but even in 2019 he was right around league-average with both strikeouts and walks. He was better in both categories in 2020, though the 15 23 inning sample isn’t really useful if we’re being honest. Even his overall hard-hit rate has been pretty good, coming in better than average in both 2018 and 2019, per Baseball Savant.

The point, though, is that we shouldn’t be all that concerned with Pivetta’s strikeouts nor his ability to limit walks. The thing that has held him back has always been the long ball. That 2018 season was his best in that regard, and even then he allowed 1.3 homers per nine innings, a number that has ballooned to nearly (or over, in 2020’s case) two per nine innings. For context, the league-average was 1.4 per nine in 2019.

In searching for the main issue, it would appear to simply be that Pivetta allows barrels at an untenable rate. Baseball Savant defines a barrel as a batted ball that produces a combined exit velocity and launch angle that produces at least a .500 batting average and 1.500 slugging percentage. You can read more about that here. The short version is: When you see a ball come off the bat that you know is trouble, that’s a barrel. Pivetta has consistently allowed barrels at a higher rate than just about any other pitcher in baseball. By percentiles, per Baseball Savant, he has been in the bottom quarter of the league in each of his three full seasons by this measure, including landing in the bottom 10 percent in 2019.

Obviously, just saying a pitcher needs to avoid the barrel of his opponent’s bat is not really insightful stuff. That’s Pitching 101. It’s one thing to know you need to do it, though. It’s quite another to figure out what steps to take to do so, particularly for someone like Pivetta who has had this issue so consistently over his career. And as I look at his career, it all seems to come back to his fastball. The righty’s fastball has been his most-used pitch each and every year, as he’s thrown it roughly half the time every year of his career. It’s a solid pitch, coming in as a mid-90s offering that misses some bats.

However, it’s also been far and away the main culprit for his home run problems. It will come as no surprise, but the issue is he lives in the middle of the zone with the pitch. You can scroll through every season here, and below I’ll provide 2019 as an example. Every season looks something like this, though.

via Baseball Savant

This clearly needs to be the focal point for Pivetta and the coaching staff as they prepare for the 2021 season. The righty has a good combination of breaking balls with his slider and curveball, with the slider in particular consistently missing bats at a high rate. The best way to get even more out of those pitches is to work up in the zone, or even a bit above it, with the fastball and then down with the breaking stuff. If he can’t consistently locate the fastball up in the zone, the next step should either be switching up his arsenal to take the focus off the fastball so much, or perhaps adding a new pitch like a cutter into the mix.

Coming out of camp, Pivetta is all but assured a spot in the Red Sox rotation to start the season. He is out of minor-league options, and he pitched well enough to close out last year that they will give him another chance. The leash should be short, though. His career track record speaks for itself, and the Red Sox have guys like Tanner Houck awaiting their own opportunity in the meantime. If Pivetta wants to get his career on the track it appeared it’d land on just a few years ago, he’s going to need a hot start. And the easiest way for him to get that hot start and locating his fastball more effectively and avoiding the barrels that have done him in so often.