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 call up shortstop Sean Rodriguez, who's known for his competitive fire

USA Today Images/Kim Klement

Phillies call up shortstop Sean Rodriguez, who's known for his competitive fire

NEW YORK — All signs point to Jean Segura returning to the Phillies on Saturday, but in the meantime, the Phils have another shortstop: Sean Rodriguez.

Rodriguez was called up from Triple A on Wednesday, two days before his 34th birthday. He will immediately get the start at shortstop for the Phillies, batting seventh on Wednesday night against Mets left-hander Jason Vargas.

Rodriguez's call-up was one of several roster moves the Phillies made ahead of their series finale in New York. Right-handed pitcher Enyel De Los Santos was also recalled from Triple A, while Mitch Walding and Drew Anderson were optioned back to Lehigh Valley. 

Additionally, left-handed reliever James Pazos was designated for assignment. Acquired in the Segura trade with Seattle, Pazos wasn't sharp in spring training and had a rough go with the IronPigs, allowing six runs and seven walks in 7⅓ innings.

The Phillies have had to utilize more of their 40-man roster than they would have liked these last two weeks. Scott Kingery was Segura's replacement, but then Kingery suffered a hamstring injury of his own. The next man up was Phil Gosselin, who had two singles in his Phillies debut last Friday and a three-run double Saturday but is 0 for 12 since. Gosselin also committed a throwing error in the first inning of Tuesday night's loss.

Enter Rodriguez, who last season in the majors played every position except pitcher and catcher. He's spent most of his career as a bench utilityman but had a lot of success in 2016 as a platoon player with the Pirates, hitting .270/.349/.510 with 18 homers and 56 RBI in just 342 plate appearances.

Even through his struggles the last two seasons, Rodriguez has more than held his own against left-handed pitching. Since 2016, he has a .384 OBP against lefties, which you'd think factored into the timing of this call-up. The Phillies face the lefty Vargas on Wednesday and another southpaw in Caleb Smith Thursday. 

Rodriguez, who's tight with Andrew McCutchen and thrilled to again share a clubhouse with him, had an opt-out in his contract if he didn't make the team out of spring training but decided to stay in the organization and accept the role at Triple A. 

"I'm in it to win," he said. "That's what I told (Gabe) Kapler and (Matt) Klentak. It was clear this offseason this team was trying to win."

Rodriguez had been hitting for power at Triple A, going 11 for 25 with four homers, a triple, two doubles and 12 RBI in his last six games before Tuesday night. Despite that and the Phillies' growing injured list, he tried his best to not sit by his phone and await the call.

"We can try to play GM but I learned a long time ago not to do that," he said. "You obviously see the injuries and all that but you don't buy into it, you just try to show up every day and do your job on a daily basis."

Rodriguez is perhaps best-known for his fire and competitiveness in the field, on the bases and in the dugout. He's the consummate good teammate, the kind of guy who's usually the first one out when benches begin to clear in a situation like the Phillies experienced Tuesday night when two fastballs were thrown above Rhys Hoskins' head.

He has no intentions of dialing that back as he gets reacclimated to the group of guys he spent spring training with.

"I think if you've identified pretty early on that's who you are as a player and competitor, it's hard not to just continue to be that guy," he said. "If you're not, then you're almost taking yourself and your competitive nature and putting it aside. Basically, you're putting it in the closet. You don't want to do that. 

"If that's who you are, that's who you are. You learn to somewhat not let the rage come out in a bad or negative way. That's what you try to harness and buffer up a bit. But definitely not turning it off."

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Upbeat David Robertson feeling good, eager to be reevaluated

USA Today Images/Bill Streicher

Upbeat David Robertson feeling good, eager to be reevaluated

NEW YORK — David Robertson, the most important and accomplished reliever in the Phillies' bullpen, is feeling good and might not be too far away from returning from a Grade 1 flexor strain in his throwing arm.

Robertson was upbeat Wednesday afternoon at Citi Field before the series finale between the Phillies and Mets. He admitted he's been antsy to get back during this process. He hasn't spent much time on the shelf throughout his 12-year big-league career, visiting the IL (then the DL) just twice, in 2012 with an oblique strain and 2014 when he "pulled something in [his] butt."

Robertson will be reevaluated by the Phillies' medical staff when they return home for the four-game series against the Marlins. He is hoping and assuming that evaluation will take place Thursday. If it goes well, he can resume throwing.

Robertson, who signed a two-year, $23 million contract with the Phillies this past offseason, has made seven appearances. The first three were ugly — four runs, 10 baserunners in two innings. The next four were strong — 4⅔ scoreless innings, four baserunners, five strikeouts.

Robertson felt the tenderness most when he would release the ball. He does not want to use the soreness as an excuse for those first three outings, one of them a ninth-inning meltdown in D.C. He's felt soreness and nagging pain at times during his long career like most major-leaguers so it's not always easy to determine when it's affecting his performance.

He's hoping that he doesn't need a rehab stint in the minor leagues but realizes it may be necessary given his recent inactivity. The last game in which Robertson appeared was April 14 in Miami when he pitched two scoreless innings in a Phillies win.

He's eager to get back, especially with the team's recent struggles. The Phillies entered Wednesday's game 1-5 on their two-city road trip.

"You watch some of these close games and think, 'Man, it should be me out there," he said. "But I don't want to be stubborn."

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