LAKELAND, Fla. — Like most Phillies pitchers, Nick Pivetta got a brief, hello-my-name-is phone call in November from Bryan Price. Two months later, he had another, more in-depth conversation with the new pitching coach that lasted about a half-hour.
That was when Pivetta expressed his chief spring-training goal.
“We talked about really getting that changeup going,” Pivetta said a few weeks before he arrived in camp. “I think that’s a really important thing for me moving forward, especially if I want to be a starting pitcher.”
And so it was Saturday that Pivetta stood on the mound at Joker Marchant Stadium and uncorked, by his count, “probably seven” changeups out of 35 pitches in the Phillies’ Grapefruit League opener against the Detroit Tigers.
Get used to it, Pivetta said. Never mind that he threw only 15 changeups all of last year. A new season requires a new look for the 27-year-old right-hander, who pitched so poorly in 2019 that he was demoted to triple-A and twice removed from the Phillies’ starting rotation.
Pivetta wasted no time, then, busting out a changeup grip that he learned last season from triple-A reliever Connor Brogdon and honed over the winter while working out in Southern California with a group of big-league pitchers. Among them: Lucas Giolito, who rode a nasty changeup to a breakthrough 2019 season with the Chicago White Sox.
“I didn’t throw it as much [last year]. I didn’t have much confidence with it,” Pivetta said Saturday. “But I need a fourth pitch to make this starting rotation, so that’s going to be the pitch that’s really going to get me over the edge.”
Pivetta tossed a scoreless first inning, then gave up three runs on five not-particularly-hard hits in the second. But manager Joe Girardi was pleased with the life on Pivetta’s fastball and his ability to locate up and down in the zone. Results, Girardi said, don’t matter much … yet.
A year ago, Pivetta was the Phillies’ fashionable spring-training pick to click. Instead, he clunked. He got sent to the minors after only four starts, then made nine starts upon his return before being shoved to the bullpen in mid-July. He regressed under rookie pitching coach Chris Young, who stressed the importance of elevating fastballs.
This spring, with Price bringing two decades of experience and a new voice to the pitching staff, Pivetta is jockeying for the fifth-starter job. Vince Velasquez, who also has fumbled ample opportunities to cement a rotation spot, is in the mix. So, too, are lefties Cole Irvin and Ranger Suarez. Irvin allowed one run on two hits in two innings of Saturday’s 8-8 tie with the Tigers.
For Pivetta, it might all boil down to his changeup. In the past, he has been primarily a fastball-curveball pitcher, with the occasional slider. But the changeup, at 85 to 87 mph, appears to have more potential as a contrast to the fastball, as long as Pivetta is able to locate it properly.
"With Price, when I first talked to him on the phone, something that really clicked with me was just making sure the pitch is down in the zone," Pivetta said. "Just make sure it's down. Let the pitch do its work."
Said Girardi: “I like it. I think it’s a weapon for him that he needs to learn how to use to right-handers and left-handers. I think he’ll continue to develop it. We’ve got time to develop it down here, and we’ll see how it goes.”
It’s one thing for Pivetta to trust his changeup in spring-training games. It’s quite another to feel confident bringing it into the season.
But Pivetta insisted the changeup is here to stay.
"Every count, yes," he said. "It can help me when I'm behind in the count. It can help me when I'm ahead in the count to strike some guys out or get some weak contact. You can't just live off two pitches in the big leagues. That's not going to work. It hasn't worked in the past. For me to take my next step, that's the pitch I am going to have and it's going to be good for me."
And if it isn't?
Welcome to the bullpen, Nick, where a two-pitch mix might be sufficient.