I think most people know that Aaron Nola and Jake Arrieta are members of the Philadelphia Phillies’ rotation. I’m guessing that a lot of you — even those not from or otherwise affectionate towards Philadelphia — could identify Vince Velasquez as a Philly starter, too. It may interest you to know, then, that none of these three men, all possessed of relative fame, led their club in strikeout percentage as a starter last year. The man who did so struck out fully 27.1% of the batters he faced, which was the 14th-best such mark in the league among starters with as many innings thrown. He also posted, at 1.01, the second-highest differential between his ERA (4.80) and FIP (3.79) in the game. His name is Nick Pivetta. Nick Pivetta is 25 years old. You may wish to consider Nick Pivetta.
When my colleague Jeff Sullivan last considered Nick Pivetta, back in April, he called him “the newest good Phillies starter,” and gave particular attention to Pivetta’s renewed confidence in his curveball. Nothing in Pivetta’s 2018 performance suggested Jeff was off the mark in this assessment, and indeed there may now be more reasons to be optimistic about the right-hander’s future than there were before the year.
Here’s one of them: a heat map of all the curveballs Pivetta threw this year (from the pitcher’s point of view):
And here’s that same chart, but for 2017:
In 2017, the curveballs Pivetta threw were basically in the same spot — down and away to righties; down and in to lefties — whether he was ahead or behind in the count. As a pitcher, it’s good not to do the same thing all the time. So it’s very encouraging that this year, Pivetta found two new places to throw his curveball: in on right-handers’ hands, even when behind in the count, and down and away to lefties.
Pivetta used to have one curveball, and now he has four. Because of the way his pitches interact — as Jeff noted, he uses his curveball mostly to set up his fastball — that means an even greater increase in the number of possible pitch sequences available to him.
And it’s not as if Pivetta spent the entire year reliant on that promising curve. Although he ended 2018 having thrown the pitch 21.7% of the time — more than six points above his 2017 mark — he wasn’t consistent in his use of the pitch throughout the season. In April, when Jeff wrote about it, Pivetta was going to the curve around 27% of the time. By the end of the year, with the Phillies solidly out of contention and (presumably) with a tiring arm, Pivetta went to the curve a little less than 19% of the time. The difference was, for the most part, made up by his increased use of a sinker, which generates an unusually high percentage of whiffs for a pitch of its kind (8.3% in 2018). That ability to adjust an otherwise successful approach as the season goes along augurs well for his future.
Which brings me to another promising thing about Pivetta’s 2018 — he didn’t really get worse as the season went along, despite setting a career high in innings pitched:
When it comes to pitching, the best predictor of success in the future is success in the past, and we now have evidence that Pivetta can put up a FIP- better than league average (92) over a full season. That isn’t evidence we had before the season (Pivetta was never especially highly regarded as a prospect), and it means that it’s now reasonable to expect something at least close to that level of performance in 2019.
Pivetta is never going to be a guy who blows you away with his stuff or his velocity — his spin rate is just about average, and his velocity is fast but not otherworldly in this supercharged environment — but he can be a guy fully in command of four serviceable big-league pitches, and that’s not nothing today or any day. For a fourth starter, it’s very good indeed.
What I’ll be paying attention to in 2019 is whether the large gap between Pivetta’s ERA and his FIP, which I noted at the beginning of this piece but have left unmentioned until now, persists for a third consecutive season. There are some players who just consistently under-perform their peripherals for one reason or another, and a third season with an ERA more than a full point above his FIP might be reasonable evidence that Pivetta is one of those guys. It might also just be evidence that Philadelphia’s defense is unusually terrible.
Batters hit over .300 on ground balls against Pivetta in 2018, which is unusual given that the league average usually sits in the .240s; he also allowed an unusually high slugging percentage on fly balls. Maybe some of those balls will find gloves in 2019. Maybe they won’t. Again, Philly’s defense was very bad in 2018. Either way, we’ll learn something. For now, Pivetta remains one of the better young starters in the game, and a key component of what could be — depending on how free agency plays out — a very solid Phillies team in 2019.
Rian Watt is a contributor to FanGraphs based in Seattle. His work has appeared at Vice, Baseball Prospectus, The Athletic, FiveThirtyEight, and some other places too. By day, he’s a public policy researcher in housing & homelessness.