Is This Nick Pivetta’s Year?

Nick Pivetta's time to shine has finally come.

It feels like the idea of Nick Pivetta having a breakout season has been tossed around for years now. He’s one of those pitchers that you watch and the stuff he has to offer is immediately obvious. Despite this, he’s struggled to ever put it all together for more than a few starts in a row. One of the wonders of baseball is that we can talk about a 31-year-old pitcher who has bounced between the rotation and bullpen while compiling a career ERA of 4.86 over nearly 900 innings like he’s going to be the next big thing and not be laughed out of the room. He made some changes mid-season last year that inspired some confidence, and we’ll be covering those a bit differently than previous pitch design breakdowns.


The Fastball


This has long been Pivetta’s calling card. His name has been at the top of induced vertical break leaderboards since their inception. He throws a pure rise-ball, clocking in at 94.6 mph with a flat 20.0” of induced vertical break and just 4.1” of arm-side run. He achieves this incredible ride with a clear over-the-top arm action that lets him get entirely behind the ball and spin it almost straight upwards. One of the side-effects of this arm-slot, when added to his 6’5” stature, is the ball coming out of his hand 6.63’ off of the ground. This is a borderline extreme release height— only two starters (Jordan Montgomery and Justin Verlander) threw as many fastballs as Pivetta last season with a higher average release point. Also, as a result of his delivery, he extends well and releases the ball with 6.9’ of extension.

Despite this cratering any potential advantage he’d get from a flat vertical approach angle created by the amount of vertical movement he generates, it wraps all the way back around to being a good thing as this unique look can create problems for hitters as well. It misses bats at an above-average rate and the contact generated off of it is acceptable. This may come as a surprise given his reputation for giving up home runs. Despite the consensus opinion on him, his fastball’s xwOBAcon, barrel rate, and EV90 were only ever-so-slightly below average. This pitch is his bread and butter. It’s what he leads with, what he finishes with, and what he builds the rest of his arsenal off of. It’s a somewhat unconventional take on the modern rising four seam, but an effective one nonetheless.


The Curveball


Pivetta’s big roundhouse of a curve that plays off his fastball beautifully to lefties was the only other pitch Pivetta didn’t modify last season. This pitch seems almost perfectly designed for video layovers with his fastball. He throws it with fairly standard velocity, averaging 79.4 mph, but with an astonishing -17.3” of induced vertical break, and 8.0” of glove-side break. It wasn’t enough that his fastball is near league-best in terms of rise, his curveball is also in the elite range for downward action. This is further compounded by his aforementioned high release point, creating a pitch that seems to be falling from the sky at a dizzying rate.


Unfortunately, the aesthetically pleasing nature of the pitch does not properly convey its overall effectiveness. The batted ball quality it allowed early in the season was not where you want it to be on a pitch like this. This has been a recurring issue for Pivetta over the years. My theory is that the distinct shape of the pitch combined with its lack of elite velocity allows hitters to track it a bit easier out of his hand. It relies mostly on its incredible movement and path to the plate to beat hitters and it’s not always enough. That said, its effectiveness improved after he made his mid-season changes. That gives me hope that he can get the most out of it going forward.


The Sweeper


On a brighter note, Pivetta debuted a sweeper mid-season last year and it’s awesome. He throws it with power at 84.2 mph, with 4.8” of rise, and 14.2” of sweep. The beauty of this pitch lies in how close it is to being entirely exclusive to him. The velocity and shape of this pitch from his release height are essentially unprecedented. There are a few pitches that are relatively close but none that I’d call truly similar. A pitch being unique is one of the best things it can be, provided it’s in a good way of course. It fits the mold of the new rising sweeper you see being thrown more and more now. It then breaks that mold entirely as that shape is usually associated with pitchers with low arm-slots, and thus low releases. As shown already, that is very distinctly not Nick Pivetta.

He only throws it to right-handed pitchers, and they have absolutely no idea what to do with it. Granted it’s a small sample, but this pitch generated whiffs without allowing productive contact. Perhaps more importantly, this pitch solves a problem that Pivetta has struggled with for his entire career. While he’s not quite a reverse-splits pitcher, he fits the profile of one and has struggled with giving up damage via batted balls against right-handed hitters. This pitch gives him an offering tailor-made for putting away and getting ahead of them.


The Slider/The Cutter


So this is where it gets a bit unorthodox. He threw both of these more than his sweeper last season but I wanted to save them for the end of this section as it needs to be formatted differently. Statcast labels these as two different pitches, and I’m not convinced they were in the way that it implies.

We’ll start with the slider. Not all sliders get a special classification like “gyro/bullet” or “sweeper”. Some sliders are kind of in the middle and are just “sliders”. This was one of those. Through the first few months of the season, he threw it hard at 87.0 mph with 3.5” of induced vertical break and 5.9” of break. From his release, that’s pretty solid depth and good power. When he located it well, it was really solid. After he started throwing the sweeper in July, this pitch “vanished” from his arsenal. At the same time, he started throwing a cutter. This cutter was suspiciously similar to his slider, however. This wasn’t a magician turning the rabbit in the hat into a dove, it was more like putting a sticker that read “dove” onto the rabbit in plain sight.

The pitch was relabeled as a cutter and, for the next month, it stayed the same. In August he started throwing it a little harder but, if not for what happened next, it could have been chalked up to simple variance throughout the season. He started throwing it even harder toward the end of the season, eventually averaging 89.5 mph, now with 6.4” of induced vertical break, and 4.5” of break. This puts it into the territory of what Lance Brozdowski has dubbed the “Yankee Cutter”.

He explains it better than I could in the linked video, but in summary, it’s a unique shape of cutter that hasn’t been seen much at the major league level. The theoretical usage for this pitch would be to throw it up and into opposite-handed hitters. This creates a pitch that would have less dangerous misses than a high fastball in the zone and could potentially tunnel with a rising fastball above the zone.

Oddly, this isn’t really how Pivetta used it. He kept throwing it like his old slider, generally aiming low and to the glove side against hitters of either handedness. This leads me to question whether he realized the change had happened or if it was even intentional. I’ll get more into what that could mean for his future in a bit. For now, it’s a pitch in a state of flux that he’s still figuring out how to use. It could be something really useful for him though.


What Does He Do Next?


Before we get into the future outlook, it should be noted that he tried out a splitter at the start of last season. He threw it occasionally for a month and a half then scrapped it, never to be seen again. He has yet to throw a changeup or splitter variant this spring.

Back to what we’re really here for, where Pivetta goes from here is a bit undetermined. There are a lot of things to watch for. He has excellent stuff but if he doesn’t use it in an optimized fashion there won’t be improvement. What I’d like to see is increased confidence and usage of the sweeper. That should be his go-to pitch against righties, potentially using it just as much as his fastball. It’s a devastating offering and we’ve only seen a glimpse of its potential.

While I’m hesitant to mess with what was working, I want to see more sweepers and fewer curveballs against righties. Those pitches are both better suited against individual hitter handedness, and the curve is meant for lefties. I know the balance worked well last year, but I’d feel better about his performance in the future if he was throwing the totally unique pitch made to confound righties, rather than the 55-grade one designed to beat southpaws.

Next up, it’s time to figure out what the cutter is. I don’t even know for sure if the shift in profile was intentional. It could have been a new grip, a change in intent or cue, or just a byproduct of the addition of the sweeper. Seeing as Pivetta has never been able to throw a true gyro slider, I think I like the idea of him using this cutter to tie up lefties and potentially improve his batted ball results. Lean into this movement. Weird pitches work.

One strange thing worth noting is that his “slider” reappeared in a different form around the time his cutter took the new shape. I’m not entirely sure what to make of it, it might just be weird in between blending of his cutter and sweeper— that’s about where the shape of that bunch of pitches wound up. It could be intentional tweaking of how he throws them or it could be an accident born from having two new pitches that move in similar directions.

Regardless of the critiques and questions, there’s still a world of potential for Pivetta to reach and he showed he could still get there last season. His last 82.2 innings of the season (when he made the changes) saw him work to a 3.27 ERA, 35.8% strikeout rate, 6.8% walk rate, and a .194 batting average against. There’s a great pitcher in there. All that’s left is for Pivetta to find him.

Jack Foley

Jack is a contributor at Pitcher List who enjoys newfangled baseball numbers, coffee, and watching dogs walk by from the window where he works. He has spent far too much time on the nickname page of Baseball-Reference.

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