As Nick Pivetta readies to make his Red Sox debut Tuesday against the Orioles, a question looms: What kind of plan of attack will the 27-year-old employ?
Pivetta possesses a curve and slider that have both, at times in his career, been devastating weapons. He also has a four-seam fastball that can reach the upper-90s. (Pivetta has made sparing use of a two-seamer and changeup in his career, as both have yielded poor numbers.) The raw materials are impressive.
“He has three or four really good, high-quality, major league pitches,” said Red Sox minor league pitching coordinator Shawn Haviland. “He’s had some success at that level. It’s kind of just about the consistency.”
What’s holding him back? Many teams and pitching coaches have wondered how someone with Pivetta’s stuff can have a career 19-30 record and 5.50 ERA.
Some of Pivetta’s struggles can be traced to his primary pitch. Despite the velocity of his four-seam fastball, it’s often been hit hard.
In the past, Pivetta has expressed greater comfort working down in the strike zone with his fastball, though he’s gotten shelled at times when doing so. In 2018, he thrived when working at or just above the top of the zone with his four-seamer (.190 average, .236 slugging, 23.7 percent swing-and-miss rate) and struggled at the bottom edge (.333 average, .733 slugging).
The Phillies, who sent him to the Red Sox last month in a deal for relievers Brandon Workman and Heath Hembree, wanted Pivetta to work with an elevated fastball in 2019 while spinning his two breaking balls down off of it. But his command to that spot proved inconsistent, with Pivetta uncomfortable attacking the top of the zone and ultimately getting hit hard no matter where he threw his fastball (.348 average, .697 slugging).
Given that the Sox envision him as a pitcher who should throw his fastball roughly half the time, where do they think he’ll be most effective while doing so?
“It plays all over the zone. It kind of matters how he got there,” said Haviland. “Obviously a guy like him who can really backspin it and has some velocity can have some success at the top of the zone, but we don’t try to cookie-cutter everything. As a starter, you need to be able to throw to all four parts of the zone.”
With starts against the Orioles on Tuesday and Atlanta in the regular-season finale Sunday, the Sox are hoping Pivetta will show the ability to do just that.
How best to judge Dalbec?
Bobby Dalbec has struck out more often (32 times) and at a higher rate (47.8 percent) in the first 17 games of his career than any other position player in major league history. Yet with seven homers, he’s also hitting .262/.328/.639.
Dalbec’s numbers bear intriguing resemblance to a player whom he just played during the Yankees series over the weekend. Aaron Judge, the 2017 American League Rookie of the Year, went into Monday’s games hitting .256/.318/.628 with nine homers and a 32.1 percent strikeout rate.
The proximity of their statistics is worth noting, given that Dalbec’s has the sort of rare power exceeded by few besides Judge. And like Dalbec, Judge struggled to make contact at the start of his career (44.4 percent strikeout rate through 17 games in 2016) before finding his way to greater offensive consistency the following year.
“There are going to be streaks in his game. Power guys usually come that way. But, wow, the way he impacts the ball is impressive,” Red Sox hitting coach Tim Hyers said of Dalbec. “There are going to be strikeouts in there, there are going to be ups and downs, but I know he’s battling to be more consistent. Me, personally, I think he can. I think there’s not going to be such a peak and valley with him.”
Dalbec isn’t alone with strikeout issues this year. The Red Sox have raw offensive numbers that cumulatively suggest a potential top-10 offense, that, through the weekend, was hitting .263 (sixth best in MLB) with a .326 OBP (12th) and .445 slugging mark (eighth). But they rank near the bottom of the league in OBP with runners in scoring position (.321, 25th) and first in the league in strikeout rate (26.2 percent) with runners on second and/or third, helping to explain why their runs per game average of 4.63 is slightly below the league average of .465.
Raising the bar
Catcher Jett Bandy has appeared in 156 big league games and been teammates with some of the best players in baseball, including Mike Trout and Christian Yelich. Yet Bandy — who is at the Red Sox alternate site in Pawtucket — can be forgiven if he wasn’t star struck. After all, another family member worked as a teammate of a celebrity of even greater renown.
“My dad [John Bandy] taught Tom Cruise how to flip the bottles in the movie ‘Cocktail,’ ” Bandy said, referring to the 1988 movie. “He had a couple kids in diapers at the time. He got bored of just ice, vodka, orange juice, here’s your drink. So he said, I need to start making more tips. He started flipping bottles, got real good at it . . . and got the gig teaching Tom Cruise how to do all those bottle-flipping tricks. That was my dad’s whole routine.”
Bandy notes that his father had a trait that has proven a useful inheritance for a baseball career.
“Pretty good hand-eye coordination,” he noted.