Nick Pivetta sat in the visitors bullpen in Pittsburgh earlier this month with his hat off and his chair pulled away from the other relievers. The Phillies had told Pivetta earlier that day that he was no longer in the starting rotation. So the pitcher watched a game for the first time with a bit of annoyance from the bullpen.
“It was a rough day for him. It was an emotional day for him. And I think it wasn't the easiest news for him to swallow,” manager Gabe Kapler said. “We asked him to come back the next day and be fully bought in and invested in being a good part of our bullpen, a productive part of our bullpen.”
The Phillies had pegged Pivetta to have a breakthrough season and emerge as a viable piece of their rotation. The right-hander had racked up strikeouts last season and had a powerful fastball and promising curveball. But the breakthrough never came. Pivetta struggled, was demoted in April to triple A, returned six weeks later, and struggled again.
Perhaps Pivetta needed a different role. Maybe his breakthrough could come as a reliever. But first, the pitcher had to accept his new assignment. After a difficult first day, he did.
Pivetta said Sunday after a 9-4 victory over the Braves that he was never angry about moving to the bullpen, but it was easy to see in Pittsburgh that he was frustrated. And it also has been easy to see how Pivetta, an emotional pitcher, has conquered that frustration and channeled it on the mound. The early results — one run in his first 7 2/3 innings — have been impressive.
“I just want to win for my teammates,” Pivetta said. “So that's where the adrenaline comes from, competing at the highest level and doing the best I can so when I am put in this position, I can do the best for the men in this room. And I think that's more important.”
Each of Pivetta’s first three relief appearances has been longer than two innings. His strikeout rate, 9.3 per nine innings, is just as high as it was when he was starting. But it is how Pivetta is getting strikeouts that seems to make him a better fit as a reliever.
A transition to the bullpen allowed Pivetta to simplify his arsenal, and he now relies exclusively on his fastball and curveball. The two pitches that offered so much promise when he was a starter are even better now when it’s all Pivetta needs to throw. He’s generating more swings and misses as his fastball velocity has jumped to 96 mph and his curveball has more bite thanks to a mechanical adjustment Pivetta said he made to create more arm action.
“He was dominant out there. His stuff is nasty. We all know that,” Aaron Nola said. “I think that would be a big spot for him but it’s a big spot for us, too, him being in a role like that.”
Pivetta needs only two pitches to handle the inning or two for which the Phillies need him. His job has been simplified, but his role is just as important, as Pivetta could emerge as Kapler’s preferred late-inning weapon during the season’s final two months. The team’s bullpen is nearly as thin as the starting rotation. The Phillies need a pitcher like Pivetta to emerge.
It came later than expected and the results are early, but Pivetta could be finding his breakthrough.
“You’ve kind of already seen what kind of weapon he can be. He can be really good,” catcher J.T. Realmuto said. “For him, it’s nice that he comes in the game and he can just air it out for an inning or two. He doesn’t have to worry about holding back for five, six, seven innings. He’s best when he can just get on the mound and let it rip. So far, he’s been really successful doing that.”
The Phillies are likely done adding starting pitchers after they traded Monday for Jason Vargas; they have added two starting pitchers in 10 days. They will also need relief help if they are to make a run at the postseason, and Pivetta’s transition to the bullpen could be seen as a trade-deadline acquisition.
“Of course we would like to have a rock solid eighth-inning guy to add into our bullpen mix. I’m not sure that that’s not Nick Pivetta,” general manager Matt Klentak said. And I don’t want to overstate what we saw in this most recent two outings, but he looked good."
“I don’t think it’s a matter of keeping him mad. It’s a matter of keeping him invested,” Kapler said. “And I think as he realizes what an enormous impact he can have on the direction of this team, and it really is big, you get a guy who can give you two innings at a time, maybe two-plus, and you can do that two or three times a week, it really changes the look, the feel, and the productivity of our bullpen.