I’m not going to sit here and do the sky is falling stuff this morning, so let’s just get to the point. Nick Pivetta wasn’t good last night. He wasn’t good in his second start against the Twins; he wasn’t good his first time out against the Braves. Through three starts, he’s pitched to a 9.45 ERA, while allowing 24 hits, 15 runs, and an almost impossibly bad 2.18 WHIP. It has been ugly. Really ugly.
Last night, the bottom fell out in a 15-1 drubbing by the Nationals. Pivetta needed 94 pitches to record just 11 outs and was removed from the game in the fourth inning. He allowed 10 of the 21 Washington batters he faced to reach base and seven of those batters to score. It was a disaster in every sense. Exacerbating Pivetta’s struggles are the considerable expectations that were placed upon him heading into 2019. Breakout season. Top of the rotation stuff. High ceiling. These are all things that have been said about the 26-year-old as recently as, oh, let’s see, 12 days ago.
Things have changed since then, so let’s attack two questions that I suspect many are asking this morning.
- What the hell is going on with this guy?
- What should the Phillies do about it?
Sometimes poor performance, especially over a short sample of time, can be explained by an element of bad luck. For instance, look at this swinging bunt for a hit during the first inning last night off the bat of Yan Gomes:
You can excuse this with an element of bad luck, but he misses his spot 0-2 by about a foot here. pic.twitter.com/gSSCILxPQy
— BobCrossingBroad (@BWCrossingBroad) April 10, 2019
Tough break, right?
Not exactly. Pivetta makes a decent pitch here–Ben Davis said as much on the broadcast after Anthony Rendon crossed the plate to make it 3-0, but what Davis failed to mention was that Pivetta missed his spot by about a foot on this 0-2 pitch. J.T. Realmuto was almost out of his squat when Pivetta came to his release point, signaling for something up in the zone. That’s not where this pitch goes. Yeah, it was weak contact from Gomes and a BABIP nightmare, but bad luck can’t be blamed when spots are consistently and egregiously missed.
There’s also some troubling data provided by Statcast that suggests Pivetta is pitching to the results he deserves. Teams have barreled his pitches at a 10.8% rate this season, up from 7.8% last season, which is also well above the Major League average of 6.1%. Moreover, he’s allowing an average exit velo of 89.1 mph through three starts, which isn’t only a career-worst, but also considerably higher than the 87.4 mph Major League average. Perhaps these factors help explain why opponents are hitting .375 against Pivetta this season. That’s not all that much higher than his .337 xBA, a Statcast metric measuring the likelihood a batted ball will become a hit. For those wondering, Pivetta rests in the bottom 7% of the league in this metric and his .584 xSLG (expected slugging percentage) is in the bottom 12%, meaning he’s been imminently hittable this season.
Well, the aforementioned inability to consistently hit spots is one thing. The other part of this is that his pitch repertoire hasn’t evolved. According to Statcast, Pivetta is still basically a two-pitch starting pitcher, relying on a four-seam fastball (50.6%) and curveball (30.1%). He’ll mix in an occasional slider, which was actually effective during the first half of last season but it has since morphed into a much less productive pitch, all while his changeup continues to be virtually non-existent. On the plus side, his fastball has life and the curveball has shown enough bite earlier in his career to warrant the hype and optimism we heard throughout this past offseason, but it’s hard to exist as an effective starter in this league with only two quasi-reliable pitches. I think this sums up the frustration fairly well:
I really would love to know what Pivetta did this offseason.
Part of the breakout was supposed to be the addition of a third pitch and there's just nothing.
— Jack Fritz (@JackFritzWIP) April 10, 2019
The other issue facing Pivetta is that even when he struggled last season, he was able to miss bats. While his 9.45 K/9 is fine, a deeper look shows he’s not quite as nasty as he’s been in the past.
Statcast shows his average four-seam fastball velocity has dropped from 94.8 mph last season to 94 mph this season, leading to a subsequent decrease in Whiff% from 24.3% to 21%. That’s not a crazy decrease, particularly given the small sample, but his curveball hasn’t been as sharp, leading to a pronounced decrease of a 34.3 Whiff% last season to only 25% this season. The bottom line? If Pivetta can’t hit spots with his fastball and his curveball doesn’t generate as many swings and misses as it did last season, he won’t be around for long.
In terms of how the Phillies should handle his struggles? Contrary to popular belief, a season isn’t defined by three starts in March/April. If the team was genuinely high on Pivetta in February, it seems ridiculous to punt on him after a few bad starts. The Phillies could summon Enyel De Los Santos or Jerad Eickhoff as a replacement, but my guess is that they will let him take at least two or three more spins through the rotation, try to identify a fix to improve his command, and hope he can find the form that led to a 3.26 ERA, 2.80 FIP, and 1.09 WHIP over his first 11 starts last season. Maybe that starts with a change to his mental approach:
Gabe Kapler said Nick Pivetta didn’t have the “intent” or “conviction” to put hitters away.
That’s as critical as I’ve heard him talk about any player in his tenure here.
— Joe Giglio (@JoeGiglioSports) April 11, 2019