How on earth did Nick Pivetta transform from an outcast from Philly into an indispensable rotation contributor for the Red Sox in what feels like the blink of an eye?
The question looms large given Pivetta’s role in the Red Sox’ strong start to the 2021 season. As he enters his start against the Angels on Friday (following a one-day stint on the COVID-19 injured list while recovering from his second shot), Pivetta is 5-0 with a 3.19 ERA this year.
He’s not overpowering opponents. His 23.3 percent strikeout rate is slightly above league average for starters. Rather, he’s been precise in his attack. Though he’s posted one of the highest walk rates in the big leagues (16.7 percent), he’s avoided the middle of the zone and garnered weak contact (.189 batting average, 0.5 homers per 9 innings, both in the top 10 in the AL) when he’s not missing bats.
Pivetta has performed well beyond his career standards — yet not in a way that surprises anyone. He’s always had a pitch mix — premium fastball velocity and a rare ability to spin breaking balls — that lit up scouts and analytics departments across the game.
Former Phillies GM Ruben Amaro recalled that when he landed Pivetta as a minor leaguer from the Nationals in exchange for Jonathan Papelbon in 2015, he had “scouts banging on the table” with suggestions of the righthander’s potential.
“The ceiling for me was a guy that could probably pitch somewhere in the middle of the rotation, up to a number two,” said Amaro. “He has the physical attributes to be able to maybe even be better than that … It came down to whether he was able to hone it. It’s a fine line between being an also-ran and being a really good pitcher in the major leagues.”
Pivetta wobbled along that line in Philadelphia in a way that was comfortable for neither him nor the team.
He’d come through the minors being told to attack the bottom of the zone with his four-seam fastball/sinker/curveball/slider combination. Yet in a promising first full season in the big leagues in 2018 — though he went 7-14 with a 4.77 ERA, he struck out an impressive 10.3 batters per nine innings — it became clear that his four-seamer played better at the top of the zone than the bottom.
The Phillies asked him to ditch the sinker completely, locate the fastball at the top of the zone, then spin his breaking balls off it, believing such a plan of attack would have similarities to that of Justin Verlander. But a sensible strategy proved easier to design than implement.
“It was, ‘OK, we’re going to change you and you need to pitch up in the zone.’ There wasn’t a lot of tutelage for how to do that. It was more, ‘Just throw up,’” recalled Ryan Hamill, Pivetta’s agent. “You have to re-wire your body to throw up in the zone. You have to learn how to do it. The problem is, when you learn to throw up in the zone, you tend to miss in the middle of the zone. That’s what I think he really struggled with.”
Pivetta struggled to adapt in 2019 and received little latitude to acclimate. After four starts, he had an 8.35 ERA and was demoted to the minors. When he returned to the big leagues, he showed improvement in eight starts (4.73 ERA) but was shifted to the bullpen for the final two months of the year.
A pitcher who’d exuded confidence coming to the majors faced uncertainty. By the time the Phillies traded him and minor leaguer Connor Seabold to the Sox for relievers Brandon Workman and Heath Hembree last summer, he seemed lost.
“You start wondering, ‘Am I a Four-A guy?’ You start changing the person you are. That’s kind of what happened,” said Hamill. “I think the best thing that ever happened for Nick was to get traded, get a clean slate. We had many conversations about this when he went over where we said, ‘Hey, I don’t want to say this is your last chance, but it’s your last chance. You need to go and show what you’re capable of doing … You can’t blame the organization anymore. You really have to go in and this is on your shoulders. Pitch how you want to pitch.’”
The Sox agreed. When Pivetta joined them, the team didn’t tell him how to pitch. Coaches and team officials asked for his input, starting with the mechanics with which he was comfortable.
Pivetta let them know that he wanted to spread the zone from top to bottom with his fastball. The team offered information about both what kind of results he got in different areas with his pitches — as well as how his sequences played. But they put the ball, quite literally, in his right hand.
“That’s the thing Nick keeps telling me,” said Hamill. “He’s like, ‘These guys are letting me be myself. They’re letting me pitch down in the zone. They’re not saying every fastball has to be letter-high.’”
Ironically, with that message, Pivetta has been working chiefly in the top third of the zone and above it with his four-seamer this year — his most effective location.
“We’ve worked hard on trying to build that trust of how it plays and where it plays and why it does. He’s done the work and buy-in for it,” said gameplan coordinator Jason Varitek. “It hasn’t been easy for him. He’s getting there. He’s getting more and more confidence with it.”
He’s doing so with the sort of velocity (94.6 miles per hour) that he had coming up with the Phillies. With the realization that he can command his slider in the zone, he’s significantly increased his usage of it, roughly doubling it compared to his time in Philadelphia. With those two hard offerings, his curveball has locked up hitters — more of a strike-stealing change of speeds than a primary option.
The total package has been that of a pitcher who, at 28, seems to be defining himself as a key contributor on a first-place team.