One of the hardest things to do in life is admit when you’re wrong. When you’re career is based on making (semi) bold statements and defending them against the masses, reclusivity is seldom easy to find.
Two years ago, I made a statement claiming that Nick Pivetta would be best served moving into the bullpen, a spot where he could gear up and fire for 10-15 pitches a night rather than stretch himself through a lineup multiple times. Pivetta found little success early in games, posting a 7.27 ERA in 26 first innings last season. This number worried me, for Pivetta had the stuff to move to the bullpen, but the success would be less than ideal based on his first inning numbers. Under the assumption that Pivetta became a setup man, how can a manager justify giving him the ball, late in the game, with the team holding on to a slim lead, and have confidence he’d produce three outs?
Not only did I fear that Pivetta would have little success as a starter in the league, I wasn’t fully convinced, despite my pleas otherwise, that the righty could be anything more than a journeyman in the bullpen, either.
But something has seemingly clicked for Pivetta early in 2018. Sample size, as always, come into account, but the stats have been telling thus far that Pivetta is ready to turn a corner. Over his first four starts this season, Pivetta has surrendered just one first inning run. He’s struck out three and allowed only three hits over four innings. His second innings have been even better in 2018, as Pivetta has yet to allow a run other four second innings pitched. He’s surrendered just one base runner over those four innings, striking out four.
So what has been the basis of Pivetta’s early success? It’s a simple answer, and it’s one that Phillies’ fans had been crying out in vein over throughout his first MLB season, when he posted a 6.02 ERA: getting ahead in the count.
Pivetta has been sensational at pounding the strike zone early, getting ahead and staying ahead in the count. Through 86 at bats in the early season, Pivetta has thrown a first pitch strike to 58 hitters. Once Pivetta gets ahead against the opposition, he’s done a tremendous job at limiting his pitch count and avoiding that term we hate to hear, “nibbling”. After starting an at bat with an 0-1 count, Pivetta has allowed just 13 hits to 52 batters. Over that same span, he’s struck out 14 hitters.
How is Pivetta doing this? He’s using and trusting his fastball to get ahead in the count. 70 percent of the time, Pivetta is starting both righties and lefties with a fastball. But what’s even more impressive is his willingness to stick with the fastball, which has averaged 95 miles per hour this season, when he gets ahead in the count. Pivetta has thrown his four seam nearly 60 percent of his pitches, a number that has jumped to almost 70 percent when he gets two strikes ahead on lefties. Pivetta is running the fastball throughout the strike zone, changing eye levels, and, most importantly, getting a ton of swings and misses. Of the 219 fastballs Pivetta has thrown this season, over 19 percent were swung on and missed.
Against right handed hitters, Pivetta is not using the fastball nearly as much when he gets ahead, but is still primarily starting those hitters out with the four seam. Once he gets ahead of right handers, he turns to what’s become his best pitch in his arsenal: the slider. Pivetta uses the slider an amazing 33 percent of the time when he powers ahead of hitters. Compare that to his 36 percent usage of fastballs and 31 percent of curveballs, and it’s no wonder why Pivetta has been so dominant early against righties, who often times don’t know what pitch is coming out of Pivetta’s hand when they fall behind in the court. Currently, Pivetta has faced 42 right handed hitters, allowing them to hit just .154 with two extra base hits. He’s struckout 13 of those 42 batters, walked none, and is pitching to the tune of a 1.59 split.
The next step I’d like to see is Pivetta thrive against a more potent offense than what he’s faced thus far.While he has been tremendous, the opposition has been less than stellar. In four starts this year, Pivetta has faced the Braves twice, the Marlins and the Reds. None of those team strike fear into many hearts, outside of Joey Votto and Freddie Freeman, of course. Pivetta will get a chance to do just that this weekend, when he’ll take the mound Sunday afternoon to oppose a surging Pittsburgh Pirates offense that has seemingly gotten better this season despite trading Andrew McCutchen this offseason.
While I expect there to be hiccups along the way for a pitcher entering just his second MLB season, what I’ve seen from Pivetta lends to warm feelings moving forward. If he continues to spot the fastball early, without trying to groove pitches over the heart of the plate simply for the purpose of trying to get ahead, Pivetta will continue his success.
Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports