Thus far, one of the more remarkable stories in 2021 has been the performance of former-Phillies starter, Nick Pivetta, for the Boston Red Sox. I think any and every Philadelphia baseball fan has PTSD from the last time we saw Pivetta don the red and white pinstripes; across three relief appearances in 2020, Pivetta yielded ten runs on ten hits (three home runs) in 5.2 innings before being shipped up to Boston for Brandon Workman and Heath Hembree. To date, that particular deal has worked out much better for the Red Sox than the Phillies as Pivetta has seemingly turned around his career while Workman and Hembree redefined ineptitude during their short stints in Philadelphia.
Be that as it may, there are two sides to every coin and I can’t help but feel that the Nick Pivetta feel-good story is going to soon come to an end. While Pivetta very much seems to have developed into what we thought he’d become, his success has come as a result of being incredibly lucky in 2021 and will soon give way to sub-par play when the law of averages reasserts itself.
Success on the Surface
If we were to ascribe to the old baseball metrics of success (ERA, pitcher’s wins), it would be undeniable that Nick Pivetta has turned his career around since joining the Boston Red Sox. Thus far in 2021, Pivetta has amassed a sparkling 5-0 record to go along with a 3.19 ERA. Not too shabby. Hits allowed have been few and far between for the hard-throwing righty; thus far in 2021, he’s only given up twenty-four base hits (good for a .190 opponents avg.).
At initial glance, it does seem that Pivetta has made some positive adjustments since departing the Phils a season ago. While he hasn’t necessarily shelved his curveball, Pivetta has relied heavily on a mid-80s slide piece that he can usually locate to the lower-outside third of the plate to righties since his trade to Boston. One of his biggest flaws while in a Phillies uniform was funneling pitches right down the middle of the plate, particularly hanging his off-speed pitches. Now, if he’s missing, he’s doing so in a spot the batter won’t punish him for his mistake. That’s smart pitching.
8 Ks through his first 5 innings.
Nick Pivetta is feeling right at home. pic.twitter.com/Ue3E1Y2MyM
— Red Sox (@RedSox) September 23, 2020
Effectively Wild…For Now
Here’s the thing, though: Nick Pivetta’s success belies the fact that he’s actually been wilder than ever. His 5.4 walks per nine innings is a major problem. Effectively wild is a thing, but any pitcher can tell you that, more often than not, putting players on for free yields negative consequences. A high walk rate and prolonged success aren’t sustainable (just ask Oliver Perez or Ubaldo Jimenez).
When you combine that with the fact that he’s limiting opponents to a .247 average on balls in play (the league average is close to .297) and the fact that he’s somehow limited a fly ball rate of 37.8% to only two home runs allowed (compared to his lifetime rate of 17.2%), you begin to realize that Pivetta hasn’t so much reinvented himself as he’s been just remarkably lucky. Luck will only take you so far in the big leagues. It’s bound to run out.
My other argument against Nick Pivetta’s resurgence as a big-league ballplayer is this: he’s benefitting from over seven runs of offensive run support per game (7.29 to be exact). Such run support is helpful when you’re facing some of the toughest teams in the American League within your own division like the New York Yankees and the…oh, wait, that’s not who Pivetta has faced. Thus far, Pivetta has lined up against the Baltimore Orioles twice, the Tampa Bay Rays, the New York Mets, the Chicago White Sox, the Seattle Mariners, and the Detroit Tigers. Outside of the Chicago White Sox, each of these teams features a sub-league average scoring offense.
This ain’t Murderer’s Row we’re talking about. Furthermore, outside of two scoreless starts against the Mets and Rays (10 innings, 3 hits allowed, 11:7 K-to-BB ratio), Pivetta has been more good than great (4.39 ERA across 26.2 innings). Those latter numbers are what I expect a “good” Nick Pivetta to look like: adequate, but nothing necessarily special. Given great run support and low expectations, it’s easier to be successful. Pivetta, to his credit, has done a fine job playing his part and not trying to overextend himself.
“When you get a 4-spot in the first inning it takes a lot of pressure off, but you’ve still got a job to do.”
— NESN (@NESN) May 5, 2021
So…What’s the Deal?
Nick Pivetta has been successful due to a convergence of good fortune and timely management. I do believe that Pivetta needed a change in scenery (he’d worn out his welcome in Philadelphia). Red Sox manager Alex Cora has done a fine job putting Pivetta in advantageous situations. Cora seems content with limiting Pivetta to between 80-95 pitches across five innings. Anything after that is a bonus. The hype train that took off following Pivetta’s breakout 2018 season hamstrung his ability to just play ball. Remember some of those dark-horse Cy Young predictions? Imagine trying to battle through adversity with that hanging over your head. Pivetta needed to get out of Philadelphia if he was going to get his career back on track.
All that being said, I don’t think we should stress ourselves out over having given up on Pivetta too soon. The Nick Pivetta we see now is not all that different than the one we’ve seen for years in Philly. Luckier? Sure, but that’s not something to hang your hat on. Pivetta’s performance will regress to what the sabermetrics purport it should be (an ERA in the mid-4.00s). The Red Sox aren’t going to keep scoring 7+ runs per start for Pivetta as they are now. Without that run support and if opponents start hitting him like they have his entire career, what then? When that happens (and it inevitably will), just be glad it’s not for us as Boston can now feel the pain that we felt for years.