Why Nick Pivetta has a legit chance to be one of MLB's most improved pitchers in 2019

Why Nick Pivetta has a legit chance to be one of MLB's most improved pitchers in 2019

CLEARWATER, Fla. — There are many reasons, despite the 5.33 career ERA, that the Phillies are excited about what Nick Pivetta can accomplish this season and beyond.

When you look under the hood, Pivetta was much better in 2018 than his ERA. His velocity, the movement of his breaking ball and his peripheral numbers all paint the portrait of a pitcher whose ceiling is a lot higher than his ERA indicates.

This season, the Phillies need him to get closer to that ceiling.

Pivetta, who hit 98 and 99 mph a few times Friday in his third appearance of the spring, struck out 10.3 batters per nine innings and walked 2.8 last season. Only seven other starting pitchers in baseball matched or exceeded both numbers:

Jacob deGrom
Max Scherzer
Justin Verlander
Patrick Corbin
Carlos Carrasco
Luis Severino
German Marquez

The combined ERA of that group: 2.89. 

Pivetta's ERA: 4.77. 

His ERA was a full run higher than anyone else's on the list.

The big difference between Pivetta and those aces came not with home runs but with balls in play. Among pitchers with at least 150 innings, Pivetta had the third-highest rate of hits allowed, ahead of only Jon Gray and Dylan Bundy. Some of that can be attributed to hard contact. But there was also plenty of bad luck.

These days, it's common to see teams, writers and commentators refer to pitchers as being unlucky when their batting average on balls in play is higher than the league average. It's not always the case. Sometimes it's the easy way out.

Pivetta, though, actually was unlucky.

According to Sports Info Solutions, the Phillies' range and positioning cost Pivetta 24 runs last season — seven runs more than anyone in the majors. The Phillies, with their league-worst defense in 2018, had three of the top five pitchers in this unfortunate category, with Vince Velasquez and Zach Eflin tied for third at 14 runs.

Keep in mind that this is not referring to errors, but instead plays the defense didn't make behind Phillies starting pitchers that were deemed catchable or routine — grounders in the hole or past a diving player, bloops to the outfield that fell in because of how deep Odubel Herrera and Rhys Hoskins played.

Don't you know it, in Sunday's four-inning stint against the Orioles in Sarasota, Pivetta again dealt with some bad luck in the form of bloops and soft hits.

"I thought [his start last Sunday] was a really good example of some luck, some things that didn't go his way," manager Gabe Kapler said. "Some wind balls that stayed in the diamond that may have not otherwise, some balls that we just missed on defense. But he was still able to have a really great game. We know that that's in there.

"And maybe the thing that will really take him to that next level is the mental focus, the mental intensity, the composure when things go just a tiny bit off the rails. Not completely but just a tiny bit off the rails. To keep it there and to kind of turn the arrow in the opposite direction. When things are trending in a way that doesn't look good for Nick and for the ballclub, that he's able to reverse the momentum."

Pivetta is big on the mental side of competition. "Master your mind, master your life," his bio reads on his social media accounts. For him, it means blocking out the outside noise, negative or positive. Not getting caught up in external criticism but also not getting caught up in being labeled a 2019 breakout candidate, particularly in fantasy baseball circles.

Almost every young pitcher experiences growing pains early in his career. Pivetta, 26, is entering his third major-league season. 

"Rather than a light bulb that goes on, it's a gradual climb as you gain experience," Kapler said. "Like, oh yeah, I've been here before. When you're a kid, everything feels so tight. You feel like you've got this noose around your neck and it's getting tighter and tighter. I think as you mature, you realize that what has happened is over and this moment here is independent of what's happened prior to it."

The Phillies are not going to be a perfect defensive team in 2019 but there's no doubt they'll be better. It would be hard not to. 

Jean Segura is a better shortstop than Scott Kingery. 

Andrew McCutchen is a much better leftfielder than Hoskins. 

Jorge Alfaro has a strong arm and graded out positively with pitch-framing last season, but J.T. Realmuto is substantially better receiving the ball. And under this Phillies coaching staff which emphasizes framing, it stands to reason that Realmuto will improve there as well. It's been a focus for Realmuto in camp and the Phils say they've already seen progress.

Pivetta improved between Years 1 and 2, and his own growth in Year 3 would coincide with the Phillies' better and offense. It could create an ideal situation for him as he enters his prime years.

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Phillies to sign Matt Szczur, according to sources

Phillies to sign Matt Szczur, according to sources

The Phillies are about to sign a player with a resume chock-full of impressive — and important — accomplishments.

According to sources, Matt Szczur, the 30-year-old outfielder from South Jersey, has agreed to sign a minor-league contract with the Phils. The deal will include an invite to major-league spring training camp.

Szczur — pronounced SEE-zur — has spent parts of five seasons in the majors with the Chicago Cubs and San Diego Padres. He is a product of Lower Cape May Regional High School and Villanova University. He was a two-sport star at Villanova.

On the football field, Szczur was a dynamic receiver and return specialist for Villanova’s 2009 NCAA FCS national championship team. He racked up 270 all-purpose yards in the title game win over Montana and was named the game’s Most Outstanding Player.

On the baseball field, Szczur was an all-Big East player and a fifth-round draft pick of the Cubs in 2010. He played in 107 games for the Cubs team that won the World Series in 2016.

Szczur’s accomplishments extend beyond the playing field.

Off the field, he did something extraordinary when he took time off from his junior year baseball season at Villanova in 2010 to donate bone marrow that ultimately helped save the life of a young girl from Ukraine who had battled leukemia. Szczur’s life-saving gift started with his involvement in the Andy Talley Bone Marrow Foundation. Talley was Szczur’s football coach at Villanova. Szczur has subsequently started his own charitable enterprise, the Szcz The Day Foundation.

Szczur hit .259 with five homers and 24 RBIs in 185 at-bats for the World Series champion Cubs in 2016. He was traded to San Diego in 2017. He spent parts of that season and the 2018 season in the majors with that club. He signed a minor-league deal with Arizona last season and hit .322 with eight homers, 28 RBIs and a .967 OPS in 44 games at Triple A Reno. His season was shortened by a quad injury.

The Phillies are set at the corner outfield spots with Andrew McCutchen and Bryce Harper and Adam Haseley is going to get a chance to hold down the center field spot with Roman Quinn in the picture as well. Szczur will give the Phillies some outfield depth and his ability to play center field is a plus. He is an excellent defender at all three outfield positions and could push for a spot on the big club as active rosters will expand from 25 to 26 men in 2020.

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Winter meetings complete, what’s next for Phillies?

Winter meetings complete, what’s next for Phillies?

SAN DIEGO — A year ago, Phillies officials left the winter meetings with much of their offseason work still in front of them.
Manny Machado was still a front-burner free-agent item. Bryce Harper was still in the background and J.T. Realmuto was headed to Atlanta, Cincinnati, Los Angeles, New York … anywhere but Philadelphia.
You know the rest of the story.
Spring training had already begun by the time the Phillies settled their offseason last year. A year later, Phillies officials departed the winter meetings on Thursday with their heavy offseason lifting complete.

The Phils signed free-agent pitcher Zack Wheeler to a five-year, $118 million contract last week and free-agent shortstop Didi Gregorius to a one-year, $14 million deal at the meetings this week. The signings left the Phils about $5 million under the $208 million luxury-tax threshold for the coming season and the club will be mindful of that. It’s likely — though not certain — that any further moves the Phillies make will qualify as tweaks.
Here are a few things to keep an eye on over the remainder of the offseason.

The starting rotation

Aaron Nola and Wheeler give the Phillies a “1 and a 1-A,” as manager Joe Girardi said.

Jake Arrieta is healthy and will be ready to go Day 1 of camp and Zach Eflin will hold down a job. Nick Pivetta and Vince Velasquez are slated to battle for the fifth job, though it would not be surprising to see the Phils bring back Drew Smyly on a minor-league deal to join the fight. The Phils were keeping an eye on Rick Porcello to see where his market was headed, but he signed for one year and $10 million with the Mets. Lefty Wade Miley could be someone to keep an eye on, depending where his market goes. The Phils are committed to having top prospect Spencer Howard start the season in Triple A, but he could have a major impact as the season goes on. The Phils will watch Howard’s workload — because of injury, he pitched under 100 innings last year — so adding bargain depth is a must.

The bullpen

At the moment, it looks like a fairly unchanged unit. The Phils are banking on Adam Morgan and Seranthony Dominguez being healthy again and Hector Neris, Jose Alvarez and Ranger Suarez carrying a heavy load again. Pivetta, Velasquez or both could be used in the ‘pen, depending on the depth that is added in the rotation. If the Phils want to push the tax, they could make a play for former Yankee Dellin Betances. Someone from the system like Garrett Cleavinger or Connor Brogdon could surprise in spring training. How about Tommy Hunter? The Phils put a lot of time into his rehab after elbow surgery last year. Could he be a fit on a bargain deal? Ditto for Jared Hughes and Mike Morin.

The bench

Former All-Star and .300 hitter Josh Harrison has been signed on a minor-league deal. He can play anywhere and figures to have a good chance to make the club. Phil Gosselin, another jack of all trades, is coming back on a minor-league deal and the team has shown some interest in free agent Matt Szczur. Brad Miller remains a free agent and a potentially good fit. Jay Bruce will add power off the bench. Andrew Knapp returns as backup catcher but it would not be surprising to see the Phils sign one or two more veteran catchers to push for work and add depth. Remember, Girardi has said he’d like to keep Realmuto to between 120 and 130 games so he is fresh in October. “That’s where the prize is,” Girardi said. Austin Romine would have been a nice fit, but he signed with Detroit. 


While it appears as if most of the team’s major moves are done, general manager Matt Klentak and his group will continue to stay engaged on the trade front and you never know if one could materialize. Nick Williams could be dealt. Miami has long liked him. Velasquez could be dealt for some salary relief, particularly if the Phils are able to add starting pitching depth. The Phils would surely listen on Jean Segura, but he has three years and $45 million left on his deal so that would not be easy.
Could the Phils make a major trade?
After seeing the Realmuto deal come together so quickly last February, it can’t be ruled out. Even something crazy is possible. By crazy we mean Kris Bryant. Yes, he’d be a nice fit as the Phils make a quick push at a title before he becomes a free agent. But it’s a real long shot and it would probably cost top prospect Alec Bohm, and it would definitely push the Phillies over the luxury tax threshold, though managing partner John Middleton has said he would go over it for the right championship-caliber opportunity. Maybe that’s Bryant. There will continue to be buzz about him and the Phillies will continue to be connected to him as long as there is.
J.A. Happ could be another guy to watch on the trade front. The Phils made him an offer last winter and he signed with the Yankees. The Yanks are now eager to move his $17 million salary and might attach a good prospect to the package to help make the deal. Happ would put the Phillies over the tax, but, given the Phils’ need for more pitching, it might it be worth rolling the dice on the left-hander having a bounce-back year if and only if the Yanks attach a good prospect or two to the deal. 

What about Herrera?

The end of the winter meetings begins to put spring training in focus and the Phillies have a big decision to make before then: Do they bring Odubel Herrera to camp? Do they release him? The Phils would eat most of his salary to trade him, but there has been no interest.
We dealt with the Herrera situation more deeply in this story.

Realmuto's extension

Sometime before spring training, the Phils are expected to pursue a contract extension with Realmuto.

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