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Finding a path to a breakout for Nick Pivetta

Despite the Phillies’ pitching woes in 2017, the organization believes there are internal reasons to be optimistic, throwing a potential wrench into fans’ hopes that the team acquires a stud starter. Arguably the most talked-about internal option, at least in the triple-A or major league level, is Nick Pivetta.

The team holds Pivetta “in high regard,” according to a Matt Breen story two weeks ago. That sentiment has been echoed repeatedly over his career. The Phils love Pivetta. They loved him when he put up a 2.25 ERA with seven strikeouts and two walks in spring training. They loved him so much that he was one of the first pitchers called to Philly when the team needed reinforcements. And they loved him so much that they gave him 26 starts, even though he finished with a 6.02 ERA and 9.8% walk rate.

The truth is there is reason to hold Pivetta in some regard. His fastball sits comfortably in the mid 90s. His 24% strikeout rate ranked 29th out of 105 pitchers with at least 130 innings last season, not far behind teammate Aaron Nola. His FIP was just 4.87, hinting that Pivetta was the victim of some bad luck in 2017. He should be better in 2018, at least if we’re just considering he’s not as bad a pitcher as his 2017 demonstrated. But there is something Pivetta can do in 2018 to help ensure he’ll be better: do something about this repertoire against righties.

Pivetta threw the fastball 65.9% of the time, which ranks eighth in baseball among starters with at least 130 innings. Ahead of him include  J.A. Happ and Lance Lynn, who mix four-seamers with sinkers that also chart as fastballs. Pivetta throws a four-seamer, a slider, curve and changeup. His fastball has one look, and though it can reach 97, it has one look.

The result is Pivetta’s fastball was hit well in 2017. Overall, Pivetta’s fastball generated a .526 slugging percentage, which means every time a batter struck the fastball, he was George Springer of the Astros.

Righties hit even better against the fastball than lefties, seeing 786 fastballs and striking to a .643 slugging percentage, or Giancarlo Stanton. Lefties (799 pitches) slugged .394, or Kole Calhoun. Who would you rather face: Giancarlo Stanton or Kole Calhoun?

Pivetta’s fastball had about 10 inches of vertical rise in 2017, which was nearly four inches higher than Nola’s. That would be fine, especially with high velocity, but Pivetta doesn’t throw an offsetting pitch against righties. Against lefties he sprinkles in a changeup (96 against lefties in 2017, 10 against righties), and while that pitch isn’t the most effective (.458 slugging against lefties), it offers a nearly five-inch change in eye level, making the fastball slightly more unhittable. The results: lefties whiff on Pivetta’s fastball 8.39% of the time, while righties whiff on it 7% of the time. Not a huge change, but it helps.

To offset not using the changeup against righties, Pivetta leaned more on his slider. That worked a ton. Pivetta’s slider generated a .333 slugging percentage against righties with a 17.9% whiff rate. The whiff rate, at least, is comparable to Nola’s curveball, which is arguably the best uncle charlie in baseball.

New manager Gabe Kalper seems to get this.

“Nick Pivetta lights me up because of his ability to miss bats at the top of the zone. Watching his video from last year, his slider can be electric at times.”

He can miss bats at the top of the zone, but he needs to offset that fastball with a changeup against righties. And that slider? That’s a winning pitch, and if that’s his best pitch, he should throw it more often against righties and lefties.

As for the curve? Against righties he threw it 175 times, generating a ton of fly balls (30.56%) and a bad slugging percentage (.592). Against lefties? Totally different: 191 pitches, 18.18% fly rate and a .304 slugging percentage.

So while lefties looked like Alcides Escobar against Pivetta, righties were Joey Votto.

Nick Pivetta is not a one-trick pony. His repertoire shows a clear out pitch that should be employed at will. If he dials up on the changeup and back on the fastball, he may see better results at both sides of the plate, and that could lead to a breakout year.

Thanks to Brooks Baseball for pitch data.

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