The Philadelphia Phillies have recalled Nick Pivetta from Triple-A, giving him a chance to reclaim the rotation spot he lost earlier this season. Despite a horrendous start to 2019, the 26-year old continues to be in the team’s plans due to his tantalizing strikeout capabilities and his, not yet fulfilled, potential. But a debate has emerged within the organization as to whether Pivetta would best serve the team as a starter or as a high velocity, power relief pitcher.
It is hard to say Pivetta’s career as a starter is a bust, especially after only 62 career starts. But there is a strong case to be made that his high strikeout stuff, would transfer nicely to the pen and help him avoid the mid-start blowups that he consistently has.
Here is a look at why a move to Philadelphia’s bullpen would be good for Pivetta and the Phils alike.
Pivetta’s Struggles as a Starter
Last year was somewhat of a breakout year for Pivetta, as he posted an impressive 10.32 strikeouts/9 (12th highest in the MLB), with 188 in total (22nd overall). But on the flip side, he posted a 7-15 record, with a 4.77 ERA, and when he was hit, he was hit hard.
The 26-year old struggled in his first four starts of 2019, posting an 8.35 ERA and an unsettling 2.13 WHIP, before his demotion.
In six starts for the Lehigh Valley IronPigs, Pivetta went 4-1, with a 3.41 ERA and 50 strikeouts in 37 innings, while holding opponents to a .173 batting average. As of May 28, the Phillies have placed Pivetta back in their rotation but as Manager Gabe Kapler recently said using him in the pen “would be something (the team) will consider.”
If the Canadian righty cannot show more consistency in the rotation, a stint in the bullpen could help move his career forward, while also stabilizing Philadelphia’s injury-riddled relief corp.
One stat that demonstrates Pivetta’s struggles as a starter is the noticeable difference between his first time through the order versus the second time through the order.
2018: 1st time through order: 70 IP, 3.21 ERA, 87 K, 11.19 K/9
2nd time through order: 61.2 IP, 6.57 ERA, 72 K, 10.51 K/9.
In his first time through the order he held opponents to a .236 batting average and a .293 OBP. Second time through, those numbers ballooned to a .293 average and a .351 OBP.
If Pivetta could harness his high velocity stuff for one or two innings a game, he could avoid those mid-game meltdowns.
The Case for Pivetta in the Pen
Pivetta possesses many of the attributes needed to be a dominant relief pitcher – a handful of effective, swing-and-miss pitches (fastball, curveball, and slider) to go with his high velocity.
Kapler explained the dilemma the Phillies find themselves in, as the team is not seem ready to give up on Pivetta’s ace potential.
“We have to balance it with knowing that at any time (Pivetta) might be one of our five best starters,” Kapler said to reporters at the end of April. “And we can envision him in a situation late in the season where he’s really important in our rotation, or sooner rather than later. So, I think there’s a balance.”
But he went onto to say that using Pivetta in the pen on a short time basis could be a real possibility.
“I don’t think there’s a whole lot of risk to seeing him out of the bullpen,” Kapler said. “I don’t think it stunts his development as a starting pitcher to see him out of the bullpen.
“But I think there are a lot of stakeholders who need to be involved in this discussion.”
As Kapler suggests, using Pivetta in relief does not have to be a permanent change. There are many examples of pitchers that have shifted back and forth between the rotation and the bullpen.
Between 2001-2004 Hall of Famer John Smoltz saved 154 games for the Atlanta Braves, before returning to the rotation for the final five years of his career. Canadian Hall of Famer, Ryan Dempster saved 87 games for the Chicago Cubs between 2004-2007, before finishing his career back in the rotation.
Other examples of starters being used effectively in the bullpen are Aaron Sanchez with the Blue Jays in 2015 and Brett Myers with the Phillies in 2007. Both were effectively utilized before ultimately returning to the rotation.
In Myers case, the move was made because of an injury to closer Tom Gordon. Then Phillies manager, Charlie Manuel said, “we definitely felt that Myers could help us better (in relief) because of our needs.”
Flash forward to 2019 and Philadelphia again has bullpen issues, with injuries to Pat Neshek, Tommy Hunter, and David Robertson.
Pivetta did make one relief appearance last season in which he pitched a scoreless 13th inning. This is clearly too small a sample size – but it was an impressive and intriguing outing. Eleven of the 19 pitches he threw that night were above 97 mph. The advantage to shorter stints in relief would be Pivetta could focus on using his strong strikeout arsenal.
The Victoria, B.C.-native struggled in the first frame of his first start back in the Majors. He gave up two home runs, and three earned runs against the Cardinals on Tuesday. But Pivetta settled in, giving up only one hit and no earned runs over the next four innings. The Phillies would love to have innings two through five Pivetta for the rest of the season. But if he continues to have bouts of inconsistency (like in the first), then Kapler and Company should not hesitate to try Pivetta in the pen.
Photo Credit: (Todd Kirkland/AP)