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One Big Question: Has Nick Pivetta reached his ceiling?

Nick Pivetta was a solid starting pitcher for the Red Sox last season and there’d be nothing wrong with him being one again. But does the right-hander have another gear left?

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Minnesota Twins v Boston Red Sox Photo by Adam Glanzman/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 Boston Red Sox 40-man roster and identifying a key question for them pertaining to the coming season. 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, at least as things are scheduled right now. Obviously, the lockout may change the timing of the season, and it also means we will likely see more additions of new faces. If need be, we will add some weekend posts to fit any and all additions to the 40-man before Opening Day. You can catch up with every post by following this link. With that, today we cover Nick Pivetta.

The Question: Have we seen Nick Pivetta’s ceiling?

Depending on which metrics you use, 2021 was the best season of Nick Pivetta’s career. You can certainly make the argument for his 2018 campaign as well, but you’re ultimately splitting hairs, and after 2018, there really is no other contender. So, since we’re focused on what Pivetta brings to the Red Sox and since we have a slight bias toward his time in Boston compared with his time in Philadelphia, let’s just agree that Pivetta was at his best last year.

Now that we have that out of the way, something that is much less debatable is the fact that Pivetta was a pretty perfect fit as a low-end No. 3 or high-end No. 4 starter last season for the Red Sox, something they desperately needed after running out a horrid starting rotation in 2020 (save for Nathan Eovaldi). In 2022, if we ever get to the season, Pivetta will be filling the same role and the Red Sox probably aren’t expecting him to do more than that. But is that the right mentality to have about the right-hander and his immediate and long-term future?

To answer that question, let’s start with the good from last year. ERA has certainly gone out of fashion as the prime statistic to evaluate a pitcher, but Pivetta set a personal best with a 4.53 ERA last year. He also had his best mark in ERA- (an exactly average 100) and ERA+ (104) while tying his highest average fastball velocity for a full season (95 miles per hour) and producing 2.1 wins above replacement, according to FanGraphs, and 2.6 if you ask Baseball-Reference. These are all relatively solid marks for a middle rotation arm like Pivetta’s and, as mentioned previously, his production ran parallel to his promising 2018 season, his second year at the MLB level. The problem is, when Pivetta had this type of season in 2018, he was just 25 years old, meaning there was real expectation that he’d improve and potentially bloom into a top of the rotation starter. Unfortunately, that wasn’t what transpired.

In 2019 with the Philadelphia Phillies, Pivetta was worth zero fWAR while pitching to a 5.38 ERA and 121 ERA-, meaning he was 21 percent worse than league average. ERA+ wasn’t much kinder to him, as his mark of 83 put him at 17 percent below league average.

Pivetta didn’t find much more success during the 2020 season with the Phillies, as his ERA ballooned to 15.88 in a total of 5 23 innings. Such a fall in effectiveness made him a trade chip for the Phillies, who sent him to the Red Sox along with Connor Seabold to shore up their relief corps with Brandon Workman and Heath Hembree. After Pivetta bounced back in 2021 and Workman and Hembree never did much in Philly, we can safely say the Red Sox won that trade — and that’s before we ever consider what Seabold might become.

Pivetta flashed some immediate upside after joining the Red Sox at the end of the 2020 campaign, throwing to a 1.80 ERA and 274 ERA+ in two starts (10 innings). It was enough to raise an eyebrow or two and maybe even a few people’s hopes. Pivetta made good on some of those hopes, as he went out and pitched like he did in 2018 in 2020. However, this time, he did so in his age-28 season, meaning he’s just a year away from turning the dreaded age of 30. That’s still well within most players’ primes and with what we’ve seen from guys like Justin Verlander, we know it’s not impossible to be an elite pitcher well into your 30s. However, is Pivetta still ascending or has he just found his ceiling?

Division Series - Boston Red Sox v Tampa Bay Rays - Game One Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

The answer to that question is a matter of what Pivetta can actually improve because there are certainly areas he could progress in to ascend to greater heights career-wise. To start with, he struggled to keep his walk rate in check all last year, finishing with a nearly 10 percent rate. (League-average was 8.4 percent, according to Baseball Savant). But Pivetta has always had pretty high walk rates for a regular starter, sitting at nine percent for his career, with just one season below that league average mark I just shared. On top of the walks, Pivetta got hit pretty hard even as he pitched well last season, finishing in the bottom 29th percentile in MLB in average exit velocity at 89.7 miles per hour, which was the exact average he had during his disastrous 2019 season.

On top of the walks and hard contact allowed, Pivetta also didn’t make as much use of his sometimes great stuff to elicit outs. His curveball ranked in the 85th percentile in MLB in spin rate last season and was easily his most valuable pitch, but it wasn’t that close to being among the elite hooks in the game. In addition, while his fastball had above average velocity, its run value wasn’t all that impressive, according to Baseball Savant’s reckoning. From there, his other offerings were serviceable at best. The fastball-curveball combination was still enough for Pivetta to have a comfortably above average strikeout rate (26.5 percent), but his whiff rate and chase rate both fell in the bottom 40th percentile in MLB.

So, adding it all up, there are certainly areas where Pivetta needs to improve, but how much can we really expect him to at this point? It is definitely not outside the realm of possibility that he has another level and he’ll smooth out some of these issues to become an essential part of the rotation. Or he could even become a critical part of the bullpen if the Red Sox liked enough of what they saw of his brief audition as a reliever in last year’s playoffs. Derek Lowe became an All-Star starting pitcher during his age-29 season after all, so maybe Pivetta could pull the same act in reverse, although Lowe was also an All-Star reliever before making the switch.

If Pivetta doesn’t improve and the Red Sox are saddled with a roughly two-win pitcher, that’s not a bad thing. They already have aces in Eovaldi and Chris Sale and rising youngsters like Tanner Houck, Brayan Bello and Garrett Whitlock. But this is probably the year where we’ll find out if Pivetta has another gear in him or if he’ll settle into the middle to back of the rotation for good.

Statistics in this post from FanGraphs, Baseball-Reference and Baseball Savant.