After giving up six runs in the first two innings of a shortened start Tuesday evening, Phillies starting pitcher Nick Pivetta is an interesting case – tough to figure out whether he has “it” or he doesn’t, whether he belongs in a big league rotation or he’ll forever be a minor league pitcher. He’s inconsistent to say the least and it’s not even game by game or even inning by inning. More often it’s at bat to at bat.
Is there something there? Can Pivetta be a competent starter in the Major Leagues?
Pivetta is only 24 and that’s relatively young for a rookie pitcher. He has been a professional though since he was 20, taken in the fourth round of the 2013 draft.
Let’s take a look at how Pivetta compares to this year’s other pitchers of similar age, capping at age 25, with at least 70 innings pitched (Pivetta has 93.2) as a cutoff. It should be noted that there are currently 36 pitchers who fit this criteria and the Phillies have three of them in Pivetta, Vince Velasquez and Aaron Nola; only the Rockies and the Pirates have as many, with the Rockies having four.
Pivetta has the worst ERA of the group at 6.73. The group average ERA is around 4.40 so he’s well above that. But we’re not necessarily looking at what Pivetta is, we’re looking at what he has the chance to be, He’s been plagued by a few bad outings and some really bad single innings that may be throwing off the ERA. If he does want to be a major leaguer, though, he’ll have to find ways to avoid these in the future.
Strikeouts are a decent indicator of pitching performance as a strikeout is the only method a pitcher has of independently getting a batter out. Nick is sixth on the list of K/9, just in front of Aaron Nola and rookie sensation Carlos Martinez of the St. Louis Cardinals. The ability to strike a batter out is key and early on Pivetta has shown that he can do this. Going forward this skill will help him toward becoming a valuable MLB starter.
Walks represent the opposite of the strikeout in that it is the only way, besides the hit-by-pitch, a batter can reach base that the pitcher fully controls. Pivetta needs to work on this as he is currently eighth on the list at 3.88. He gives out entirely too many free passes for him to be effective.
But the average among the group is around 3.2, so Pivetta’s 3.88 isn’t that far out of line with his peers.
Like the last two stats this is also a pitcher independent statistic as no fielder is involved. It’s strictly the pitcher that gives up the home run and Pivetta has given up his share. He leads the list for home runs per 9 at 1.99. You cannot walk guys and give up two home runs per start and expect to be a successful pitcher in the majors.
Pivetta has given up 21 home runs in his 95 innings of work, and of those, eight have been more than solo shots.
Of those eight, four were hit with Pivetta almost out of the inning at two outs.
Of those four, two were three-run shots that were hit in two-strike counts, one 1-2 count and one 2-2 count.
Five batters who were walked scored in those eight multiple-run home runs.
It’s these little details that change everything; one more out, one more strike, one less walk and all of the sudden your ERA goes from plus-6 to a manageable sub-4 and just like that you’re a reliable middle-of-the-rotation starter. This is what Pivetta needs to work towards.
The Big Inning
As mentioned above, Pivetta has a problem giving up the big inning, indicative of not being able to get himself out of jams and just having the inning get away from him. He has 10 innings pitched this year where he’s given up more than three runs in an inning, including two in his start Tuesday … the first two. Those 10 innings combined have 38 total runs scored. He’s given up 72 runs this year total so those big innings account for more than half of his total runs allowed. Fourteen of those 38 big-inning runs were scored with two outs, and eight of the runs had a free pass (seven walks, one hit-by-pitch) involved.
This all sounds pretty bad, but among these negatives have been a few positives, like his ability to strike batters out. The best of Pivetta was showcased when he faced a very tough Boston Red Sox lineup in June. He went seven strong in that outing, giving up no runs and only four hits. That game was part of a five-game stretch where Pivetta pitched to a 3.58 ERA and only surrendered two home runs in 27.1 innings.
The ability is there, it just needs refinement. Pivetta needs to severely cut down on the free passes and the home runs. He needs to find consistency among all of his pitches, especially his secondary pitches (Marcell Ozuna hit a curveball for a home run Monday; his curve is still a big work in progress). There are plenty of aces who had similar troubles early in their careers. Cliff Lee, Zach Greinkie, Jake Arrietta – there is no shortage of pitchers who struggled early in their career, but it’s what they did after that mattered. No one is saying Pivetta is the next Max Scherzer, but there’s no reason he can’t be either.