When Nick Pivetta decided that this would be the offseason to relocate from western Canada, he and his wife considered a few options. They looked into Seattle. Maybe California. Colorado, perhaps?
That’s when Pivetta’s agent made a pitch that a pitcher would love.
“Why don’t you come out to L.A. and come work with Lucas [Giolito] and Max Fried?” said Ryan Hamill, naming two other starters that he counts as clients. “We have a really good strength coach. Why don’t you just come out here and switch it up and work with this guy and see how it works?'”
Pivetta was ready to try anything. Pegged for a breakout season with the Phillies last year, he got demoted to triple A in April and shoved into the bullpen in July after an aborted return to the rotation. He finished with a 5.38 ERA, 121st among 142 big-league pitchers who worked at least 90 innings.
So, Pivetta returned to Canada for two weeks and rewatched every miserable start from last season, then packed up and made the move in mid-October. Since then, the 26-year-old right-hander has trained with nearly a dozen pitchers, including Cardinals ace Jack Flaherty and Mets star Noah Syndergaard — all represented by Creative Artists Agency — in what Hamill calls “the pitchers’ house.”
Pivetta’s goal: to reinvent himself. In advance of a pivotal season that will lead to either a stable spot in the Phillies rotation or more uncertainty, he has overhauled his mechanics and rebuilt his confidence before going to spring training and competing for the fifth-starter spot with Vince Velasquez and Ranger Suarez, among others.
“It wasn’t necessarily going the best way for me in 2019, and I wanted to make an adjustment that could help me separate myself,” Pivetta said the other day by phone from California. “Just surrounding myself with a lot of guys — same age, similar standpoints in the careers — I think it’s important to get around those guys, feed off each other, and do the things that they’ve had success with and mimic them and drive yourself in that same direction.”
For three months, Pivetta’s days have begun with 8 a.m. workouts alongside Giolito and Fried, high school teammates at Harvard-Westlake School in Los Angeles and now starters for the White Sox and Braves, respectively. The group, which meets at Kobe Bryant’s Mamba Sports Academy, also includes Mets reliever Robert Gsellman and Rays prospect Joe Ryan.
The afternoons, at least since the beginning of January, are spent throwing bullpen sessions together at a nearby school. Syndergaard and Flaherty often join in. So do the White Sox’ Reynaldo Lopez, the Reds’ Michael Lorenzen and Hunter Greene, and Jon Duplantier of the Diamondbacks.
At night, there are dinners and even the occasional Lakers game.
“You get 11 alpha males in one weight room and Thor [Syndergaard] running around with his shirt off like he’s a Norse god, it’s like, ‘OK, I’ve got to keep pumping these sets out,’ " Hamill said by phone. "It’s a group of guys that have been working out together for a few years. They’ve all had success, but have also gone through struggles and turned things around. It was a really good atmosphere, I thought, for Nick to be in.”
Pivetta has paid close attention to Giolito, in particular.
Drafted a year apart by the Nationals, they were roommates in the minors until Pivetta got traded to the Phillies for Jonathan Papelbon midway through the 2015 season. Giolito was dealt the following year, and after a promising 2017, he posted an unsightly 6.13 ERA in 32 starts for the White Sox in 2018.
Then last season, at age 24, Giolito had the breakthrough that the Phillies hoped for from Pivetta. He won 11 of his first 14 decisions, took a 3.15 ERA into the All-Star break, and finished with a 3.41 mark and 11.6 strikeouts per nine innings, second in the American League to Cy Young Award-winning Justin Verlander (12.1).
“Seeing Lucas make the changes that he did, that’s the direction that I want to go in,” Pivetta said. “Knowing the work that he’s put in, that’s where I want to see myself go.”
Giolito did it with a dominant changeup, a pitch that Pivetta has spoken to new Phillies pitching coach Bryan Price about incorporating into a mostly fastball-curveball repertoire.
But Giolito also worked with Los Angeles-based strength and conditioning specialist Matt Uohara on better understanding his body to improve his mechanics, a process that Pivetta has undertaken five days a week since early November.
In previous offseasons, Pivetta did squats, dead lifts, and other typical weight-room exercises. Uohara studies how a pitcher’s body works and aims to strengthen those movements by tailoring a program for that pitcher. In this case, he has emphasized improving the connection between Pivetta’s rib cage and pelvis with the intention of making his delivery, in the pitcher’s words, more “clean and efficient.”
If Pivetta is able to maintain the changes once he arrives in Clearwater, Fla., Uohara believes the Phillies will see a difference in his mechanics. Not only does Pivetta have a shorter arm path and better extension toward home plate, but he’s more balanced. By landing with his toe pointed at the catcher rather than toward third base, he’s able to get better drive down the slope of the mound.
“He’s a completely different pitcher,” said Uohara, who noted that Pivetta is often the first pitcher to the gym, sometimes arriving even before he gets there at 7:30 a.m. “I think Philly’s going to be really excited when they see him come into spring training.”
That’s how team officials felt last spring, their bullishness stemming from the spin rate on Pivetta’s curveball and other advanced metrics that predicted a leap in performance. A year later, Pivetta must earn his roster spot. He has one option remaining, after all, and can begin the season in triple A without being exposed to waivers.
His situation, then, isn’t dissimilar to Giolito’s standing with the White Sox a year ago. Flaherty, who rode a 0.91 ERA in 15 second-half starts to a fourth-place finish in the Cy Young Award voting, had a 4.90 ERA through early July. Fried won 17 games last season but stumbled down the stretch.
Other than Giolito, Pivetta didn’t know most of them before this winter. He was “kind of in the dumps” after last season, according to Hamill, who feared he lacked a support system. The Phillies appeared to lose confidence in Pivetta. He seemed to be a decent candidate to be traded in the offseason.
Maybe a few months of bonding with more successful peers will help him.
“It’s been a really good experience,” Pivetta said. “It’s been a really good, positive vibe, especially from the standpoint of just being around a whole bunch of guys that are moving in the same direction and have all the same goals. I’ve really enjoyed it.”
Hamill isn’t sure that confidence can be restored through osmosis. But for Pivetta’s sake, he was willing to test the hypothesis.
The rest, of course, is up to Pivetta.
“He told me the other day," Hamill said, “that he flat-out feels like, ‘Look, I’ve done everything in my capability to get better this offseason. I’m either going to be good enough or I’m not going to be good enough.' ”
This season will represent the reckoning.