Analysis

What’s behind Nick Pivetta’s struggles? His fastball



Nick Pivetta has a 9.45 ERA through his first three starts. (Photo by Andy Lewis/Icon Sportswire)

After a dominant Spring Training, Nick Pivetta entered 2019 as a dark horse candidate to be a National League All-Star. Some went as far as suggesting that the 26-year-old could find his way into the National League Cy Young Award race in 2019.

But through the first three starts of Pivetta’s 2019 campaign, he’s totaled a 9.45 ERA across 13.1 innings. It’s caused the Phillies to take a hard look at what adjustments Pivetta needs to make to get his season back on any sort of track, let alone Cy Young-caliber.

It’s easy to fall in love with Pivetta’s repertoire – he has a fastball that flashes in the mid-90’s, coupled with one of the best curveballs in baseball. At times during Spring Training, Pivetta’s fastball pushed 99. While most Spring Training stats don’t matter, velocity upticks do. It is still colder in Philadelphia in April than it is in Clearwater, but that 97-99 mph hasn’t made its way north to this point. Right now, Pivetta’s fastball is sitting at 94 mph, which is down .8 mph on average from last season. That could balance out over the course of the season with temperatures rising, as it did a year ago—rising from 94.4 to 95 mph between April and June. That suggests there’s nothing wrong with Pivetta physically, and his fastball will see a similar uptick as the 2019 season goes along.

The usage rate of the fastball has not changed from last year, as Pivetta is throwing the four-seamer 50 percent of the time. However, it is useful to zoom in and look when he is using the pitches compared to a year ago.

The first pitch to right-handed hitters is where the biggest change has come for Pivetta this season. In 2018, Pivetta threw a first pitch fastball to right-handed hitters 59 percent of the time. In his first three starts this season, that has dropped to 43 percent. With the fastball drop, the slider is getting more usage at 36 percent of first pitch offerings. When Pivetta offers the slider first, it has been a ball 40 percent of the time. Now, it is early and a few extra sliders for strikes could move those numbers, but it’s important to monitor.

While the situational usage of the fastball has changed a bit for Pivetta to this point, the overall balance remains similar to where he was at a season ago. The velocity to this point checks out as it relates to last season. The one topic that seems to be overlooked is that maybe Pivetta, even with the mid-90s velocity, just doesn’t have a great fastball. Is the velocity good? Yes, the velocity is fine. The year-to-year results are not great, though. Over the past calendar year, Pivetta has the 12th-worst four-seam fastball in baseball of starters with at least 100 innings pitched, per FanGraphs pitch values. If pitch values aren’t enough, the right-hander allowed a .494 slugging percentage on fastballs last season. In the small sample this year, that number has risen to .844.

As expected in the majors, when you fall behind in counts, hitters get significantly better. Pivetta is a first-hand witness of that this season. As the image below from Baseball Savant depicts—when Pivetta falls behind in the count, the opponent’s exit velocity takes a significant jump:

 

Can Pivetta bounce back from this? Sure. Last season he managed 2.8-fWAR, which was respectable for a back-end starter. The ability to become a front-end starter will rely on his giving up less hard contact on his fastball, though. In searching for the positives on Pivetta, one can look at his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) this season. Through his first three starts, Pivetta has a .447 BABIP, which is .121 points higher than his mark in 2018. Using Baseball Savant’s search function, it can be found that Pivetta has allowed 18 hits that are classified as poor contact, with 10 coming on fastballs. That still doesn’t take away from the extreme slugging issues, but it does show that there may be some better luck coming his way.

If Pivetta wants to get better results on the four-seam fastball, it will have to start with pitch location. Below are two heat maps—one from 2018 (left) and 2019 (right). On both charts, Pivetta is pounding fastballs up and in to right-handed hitters or over the heart of the plate:

  

Specifically, this season, Pivetta has been middle-in to right-handed hitters quite often or on the outer-third to a lefty. Both have seen poor results. Thus far, right-handed hitters are slugging .688, with an expected slugging percentage of .842 based on their exit velocities and launch angles. Left-handed hitters have a 1.000 slugging percentage, with an expected slugging percentage of .760. While those numbers almost certainly will fall during the season, they are very problematic and show that Pivetta’s fastball, which is still being used half the time, needs to be better.

So after his first three starts, it’s fair to panic on Pivetta’s chances to break out this season. The pitch he uses to set up his curveball, and throws half of the time, is one of the worst in baseball. The schedule does not get easier for Pivetta going forward, as he will see the New York Mets at home and the Rockies in Colorado this week. Following those starts, he should see the Miami Marlins, Washington Nationals, St. Louis Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers over his next four starts. The weather may bring the fastball velocity up a little, but if the pitch isn’t better located, or maybe even used less, we may need to re-evaluate the breakout potential of Pivetta.

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