Of all the prospects added by the Red Sox leading up to the trade deadline, none has the chance to affect the 2021 team like Nick Pivetta.
Though currently at the team’s alternate site in Pawtucket while rebuilding arm strength, the 27-year-old righthander represents a dazzling talent who has long been seen as having front-of-the-rotation potential.
At different points in his career trajectory, he’s used Roy Halladay, Justin Verlander, and Lucas Giolito as models to emulate. The fact that those pitchers can be used as frames of reference is a testament to Pivetta’s tremendous natural ability. He possesses a fastball that typically sits in the mid-90s and tops out at 99, a devastating curveball, a slider, and a developing changeup.
“His stuff was as good as anybody there — among the top few in the league,” said Atlanta pitching coach Rick Kranitz, who served in the same role with Pivetta in Philadelphia in 2018. “Everything was there.”
Yet the array of role models also suggests something else: Pivetta is searching.
Armed with all the ability in the world, he has yet to achieve sustained big league success.
After nearly 400 big league innings, he is 19-30 with a 5.50 ERA, a performance that necessitated demotions to the minors in 2019 and 2020. This year, he allowed 10 runs in 5⅔ innings for the Phillies before they shipped him to the Red Sox with Connor Seabold for relievers Brandon Workman and Heath Hembree.
“It definitely hasn’t gone the way I’ve wanted it to,” said Pivetta.
Pivetta represents a riddle as he enters the Red Sox organization. Yes, he has immense talent. But what does he need to do and who does he need to be in order to turn potential into performance?
“That’s a great question,” said current Phillies pitching coach Bryan Price. “I do really believe that his best years ahead of him. But I do think he has to find out who he is as a pitcher . . . At this point in time, I think he’s kind of in-between, both from a delivery perspective and figuring out the type of pitcher that he is.”
The Phillies acquired Pivetta from the Nationals for closer Jonathan Papelbon at the 2015 trade deadline after he’d dominated in the High-A Carolina League. Two years later, he was in the Phillies rotation, being given a chance to grow on a rebuilding team. With a powerful two-seam fastball, Philadelphia encouraged him to model his game on Halladay, who thrived working at the bottom of the strike zone.
Pivetta took his lumps in 2017 (8-10, 6.02 ERA in 133 innings), but one year later, he made a head-turning step forward. Despite a 7-14 record and 4.77 ERA (partly the product of an awful Phillies defense), he struck out 10.3 batters and walked just 2.8 per nine innings over 164 innings.
At the time, he was one of 22 pitchers ever to record at least 10 strikeouts per nine innings while qualifying for the ERA title at age 25 or younger. A lot of predecessors in that distinction had been elite.
“There were times when it was just, ‘Oh my gosh. His stuff is just dominating hitters,’ ” said Kranitz.
But despite his velocity, there remained vulnerability and inconsistency, particularly on Pivetta’s fastball. Hitters teed off on it when it was down in the zone.
Both because of that track record and because data about his four-seamer identified characteristics similar to those of Justin Verlander, Philadelphia wanted him to work at the top of the strike zone with his fastball and to use his two breaking balls off of that. In spring training of 2019, that altered approach to work at the top of the zone dazzled.
“He looked as good as you can,” said one evaluator, who saw him as a dark horse Cy Young candidate.
But with expectations soaring, he couldn’t carry that promise into the season. Pivetta, entrusted with the second start of the year, got shelled by the Braves and couldn’t correct course. Five starts into the season, he had an 8.35 ERA, and the Phillies optioned him to Triple A.
The rationale wasn’t just performance-based. The Phillies were concerned about how Pivetta came across to teammates — entitled to a rotation spot, too eager to pin blame on others when he struggled, unable to regain control of games when things started to go awry.
Despite a strong work ethic, the team felt he needed to mature in order to make his performance match his talent, and thought that being sent down would help. He reacted poorly to the demotion, only further convincing the Phillies of its necessity.
The team recalled him after six weeks, and initially he excelled in the rotation (three starts, 20 innings, 1.80 ERA, 21 strikeouts). But his performance quickly dropped off as his fastball got crushed in all parts of the strike zone. The Phillies moved him to the bullpen, and the performance remained uneven en route to a 5.38 ERA.
In the offseason, Pivetta worked out with a number of elite pitchers — including Giolito, Max Fried, and Noah Syndergaard – hoping to position himself for a bounceback. He committed to returning to his 2018 pitch mix — working lower in the zone with his fastball, trying to regain the feel for his curve. He also worked to make his delivery more compact.
“There was definitely a different pitching philosophy back in 2019 that I didn’t adjust to very quickly,” said Pivetta. “I want to get back to my 2018 self — obviously have better numbers than 2018, but I think that’s a good base that I can really build on these next three years, getting to 200 innings, 200 strikeouts, being that reliable starter.”
The commitment was laudable. For the Phillies, the results weren’t.
Although Pivetta had felt good in spring training, the righthander lost a rotation battle with Vince Velasquez during July training camp. Out of the bullpen, Pivetta got shelled in three appearances before getting sent to the alternate site.
“He trained all offseason to be ready for this season. It was a huge blow, which I think all of us completely understood,” said Price. “But the point was we all want stuff, but when guys get to the big leagues, the most important thing is that you perform.”
With the Phillies pushing to contend, they didn’t feel Pivetta was ready to contribute this year — certainly not out of the rotation. The Red Sox, with their season lost and desperately in need of rotation options, could take a longer view.
“The potential is there for a plus or better starter,” said one American League evaluator, “but he’s frustrated everyone forever.”
There is a lottery-ticket element to Pivetta. Is he a mid-rotation starter? A bullpen contributor? Someone who struggles to secure a place in the big leagues?
The answer is up to Pivetta.
Perhaps, after arriving at the conclusion that he’d reached a dead end in Philadelphia, a new opportunity with the Red Sox can unlock the success that’s eluded him.
“The things that haven’t gone away are his height [6 feet 5 inches], his arm strength, his ability to spin the baseball,” said Kranitz. “The fresh start with a new club might be exactly the boost that he needs, to have some fresh faces around and to feel like he’s not being judged to the same degree.”
Pivetta is in Pawtucket building his workload in anticipation of joining the big league rotation this month. Through conversations with chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom, big league pitching coach Dave Bush, and Pawtucket pitching coach Paul Abbott, he has been given a blueprint forward.
His big league record suggests that he comes without guarantees of success. The team has ideas about what Pivetta can do to be successful — but mostly, the Red Sox are giving Pivetta a chance to determine who he is going to be, and to find his own heretofore undiscovered formula to achieve success for himself.
For his part, Pivetta suggests that he understands that it is up to him to define both who he is as a pitcher and, in the process, what he can become.
“I’m very grateful for my time in Philadelphia, all the lessons it’s taught me, the relationships that I have. So, I’m very grateful for that, but I’m also grateful for this opportunity to be a starter,” said Pivetta. “There was no room for me to be a starter there at this time, or it seemed like moving forward. To be with an organization that values me as a starter, I’m just super grateful for that opportunity. I’m going to make the most of it.”