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:
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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