Nick Pivetta emptied his locker during the final weekend of the season, dumped his belongings into a moving box with “CLEARWATER” marked on the lid, and taped it shut.
The season, which began with the hope that Pivetta would blossom into a reliable starting pitcher, was finally over. In a Phillies season filled with disappointments, Pivetta’s was a crushing letdown. He was sent to the minors in April, moved to the bullpen in July, and dropped again to triple A in August after manager Gabe Kapler said Pivetta struggled with accountability. It was a humbling five months.
“There’s a lot of disappointment with how this season ended,” Pivetta said in September. “I know I had a way higher standard of myself.”
As Pivetta shut the box on 2019, his future was far from certain. His belongings were ticketed for Clearwater, Fla., but his role with the Phillies was not guaranteed. Even if he remained with the team, it was unclear if he was a starter or a reliever.
Was there anything for him to gain from a lost season?
“I had to ask that question to myself,” Pivetta said. “Who am I and what kind of pitcher am I?”
The Phillies, as they outlined earlier this month after adding free-agent starter Zack Wheeler, seem willing to give Pivetta another chance. Unless they add another starting pitcher, Pivetta will compete in Clearwater with Zach Eflin and Vince Velasquez for the final two spots in the starting rotation. The Phillies, as they near the luxury-tax threshold and appear hesitant to surpass it, might not add another starter. That competition is beginning to seem like a reality.
“A little competition really can never be a bad thing,” general manager Matt Klentak said. “We still believe in the stuff that these guys possess, and the upside that they have and their ability to bounce back.”
Pivetta’s ERA (4.77) was not impressive in 2018, but his strikeouts (10.3 per nine innings) and his 3.79 FIP — a measurement similar to ERA that is independent of defense and is considered by some to be more true to a pitcher’s performance — provided reasons for the Phillies to enter last season with belief that Pivetta would turn the corner.
Instead, Pivetta’s ERA and FIP ballooned and his strikeout rate as a starter decreased to just 7.6 per nine innings. Pivetta, in a season pegged to be a breakthrough, regressed.
His pitches, specifically his curveball, were flat. The development of a change-up — which Pivetta tinkered with during spring training — never materialized. He looked like a dominant relief weapon for a week in July, but quickly fizzled. His fastball still zipped at 95 mph, but it was crushed. Hitters slugged .695 last season against Pivetta’s fastball after slugging .477 against it in 2018.
And that is where the Phillies can find reasons to believe in Pivetta once more. His struggles last season under first-year pitching coach Chris Young were centered around the lack of secondary pitches. He threw hard, but Pivetta lacked a reliable breaking pitch to keep a hitter from sitting on his fastball.
His curveball was predictable last season as it consistently hung near the middle of the plate. Opponents slugged .352 against it after slugging .289 against in 2018, when Pivetta successfully moved his curveball around. He threw his change-up even less than he did in 2018.
The Phillies fired Young after the season and replaced him with Bryan Price, who prioritized the change-up during his time with the Reds. Perhaps a new voice could unlock Pivetta’s potential.
“Without going and doing a bunch of intel on it, my feeling is we’re seeing more guys that throw hard with fewer guys who know how to pitch," Price told the Cincinnati Enquirer in 2016. "The change-up for many pitchers has almost completely gone away as a secondary pitch. It’s really like a life-preserver for pitchers who have to throw more than one inning or two innings at a time. I really believe that. I think it’s throughout the industry.”
Pivetta said developing a change-up will be a “big focus” of his offseason. He is working this winter in Southern California alongside major-league starters such as Lucas Giolito, Max Fried, and Jack Flaherty in sessions set up through his agent from CAA. After a season spent mostly as a reliever, Pivetta will spend the offseason alongside other starters trying to find the pitch that could keep him in the rotation.
“I’ve always labeled myself as a starter. I’m a starter in my heart,” Pivetta said. “Regardless of what happened this year or next year, I know who I am and what my strengths are. I know what I love to do. When I show up to the baseball field, I’m a starter. That’s who I like to be.”
Klentak said in October that it is “time to win — right now” and fielding a rotation with a pitcher who struggled so mightily in 2019 seems like a risky bet. But the Phillies seem comfortable with their chances.
Perhaps they are comforted by knowing that if Pivetta or Velasquez — Eflin seems like a rotation lock — struggles, Spencer Howard will be waiting in triple A. Or perhaps they still believe in Pivetta’s potential, believing that 2020 will be the season that he turns the corner. His moving box will be waiting for him in Clearwater.