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The Nick Pivetta Tragedy: How the Overuse of Analytics Ruined a Young Star

davidesser14

 

“I want to give him the heat and announce my presence with authority” -Nuke from the movie “Bull Durham”

 

How many of y’all have seen the movie “Bull Durham”? Without going into all that much detail, it’s essentially a 1980s romance/comedy based around the relationship between an aging veteran minor league catcher, and an up and coming superstar pitcher. The pitcher (Nuke) is an emotional mess, relying far too much on his “stuff” and generally acting like an egotistical d-bag. I’m not going to spoil too much of the movie, but I find the plot to be hilariously similar to Nick Pivetta’s situation here in 2019.

 

Anyone who’s watched the Phillies this season knows how utterly painful the Pivetta experiment has become. In just 13 starts, he’s racked up a 5.38 ERA, a 1.523 WHIP, a trip to the bullpen, and now has found himself back in AAA for the second time this season. It’s been an absolute nightmare. Now most common fans outside of the Phillies’ organization would probably just write him off as someone who simply sucks, however it wasn’t always like this. No more than 5 months ago were baseball minds around the world calling Nick a potential Cy Young winner. In this piece I’m going to break down why such lofty expectations were set for Nick, what went wrong, and what the future holds for the 26 year old righty.

 

Nick Pivetta: Cy Young Candidate?

 

As I type the words “Cy Young” next to Nick Pivetta’s name, it almost feels somewhat silly, but this was a very serious reality coming into the 2019 season. On February 1st, MLB reporter Matt Kelly wrote up an entire article labeling 12 potential sleeper Cy Young candidates. Among that list? Yup you guessed it: our very own Nick Pivetta.

 

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Kelly wasn’t the only one who predicted Pivetta to have a monster 2019. Carlos Collazo of Baseball America listed Nick as his “#1 Breakout Pitcher”, heavily acclaimed baseball writer Corey Seidman wrote an entire piece for NBC Sports highlighting why he felt Pivetta was primed to become an ace, and Brandon Musso of Sports Talk Philly also wrote up an article essentially agreeing with what everyone listed before had already said. 

 

Coming into the 2019 MLB season, it was almost considered common knowledge that Nick Pivetta was going to transcend into a really, really good pitcher. I started my own personal Twitter account in late May, and one of the most common hashtags I saw floating around Philly Twitter was #breakoutsznPivetta. The entire baseball world was expecting a huge year from the 6’ 5” Canadian, the question is, why?

 

Analytics. Specifically, the heavy and absurd overuse of analytics. Take a minute to go back and glance over each of the articles I highlighted previously, and you’ll see them riddled with new-age statistics like ground-ball percentage, spin rate, velocity, batting average on balls in play, etc. As the MLB has begun to transcend into a world of numbers and percentages, Nick was no exception. Analysts and coaches around the world were infatuated with some of his hidden statistics, numbers that the common baseball fan would almost never even think to look at.

 

Now for the most part, the scouts were right, Nick DID have some really impressive “analytical stats”. Despite an overall rough 2018 campaign, Pivetta was walking into 2019 with some really impressive numbers. He had a strikeout rate above 25% while also having a ground-ball rate above 45%, becoming one of just 7 total MLB pitchers to boast that ratio (Nola, Corbin, DeGrom highlighted that list). Nick also ranked 13th in the entire MLB in K-BB% (19.7%), 15th in the MLB in ground-ball percentage, 23rd best on swinging strikes, and was the recipient of some seriously bad defense in 2018 which no doubt hurt his ERA as Corey Seidmen points out. 

 

Delving even deeper into these 2018 analytical stats, we see numbers like a curveball spin rate of 2800+ (that’s really good), a fastball velocity of 95/96, a whiff% of 21% on sliders, a SIERA (skill interactive earned run average) of 3.25 which was 12th best in the league, a 3ish FIP and xFIP, etc etc etc. The list goes on and on. There are countless statistics and computer formulated numbers that all *proved* Nick was primed for a serious Ace-like season in 2019. This was not just blind faith by the Phillies organization, this was a notion backed by every analytical department in baseball, so, what in the world happened?

 

Old School vs New School

 

When you watch Aaron Nola pitch you see a man who is calm, composed, lazer sharp, and confident. Watch Nick Pivetta pitch and it’s almost a complete polar opposite. Nick is an emotional wreck on the mound. He starts off games hyper-confident, testing far too many hitters with his fastball. 1-2 runs later and he’s almost crying out there, losing every ounce of control he possesses. A 1 run game very quickly becoming a 5-6 run game (Nick has 4 outings allowing 5+ runs this season).

 

 

Here enters the controversial “old school vs new school” debate. Every number, chart, graph, and computer listed Nick as a pitcher with every bit of *stuff* imaginable. However, ask any old school coach what matters most in a MLB pitcher and he’ll tell you it’s the magical “it factor”. This factor is something formulas can’t measure. It’s the factor that helped Cole Hamels win a World Series MVP, or the factor that causes Max Scherzer to be known as one of the fiercest competitors in all sports, or how about the factor that allowed MadBum to pitch out of the bullpen in a World Series. This is something that analytics simply cannot measure, a factor that Pivetta blatantly does not possess.

 

The pressures surrounding Nick in 2019 were outlandish. Ignore every pitching metric out there for a second, you’re talking about a guy who prior to 2019 had a career ERA of 5.33 and a career Minor League ERA of 3.16. Nobody in their right mind would consider those numbers to be that of a future ace. Throw in the fact that he’s somewhat refused to learn a truly deadly third pitch points to that of somewhat who is overconfident (just like Nuke from Bull Durham), and the way he handles demotions show an immature side to him.

 

 

He just simply wasn’t ready for the role that was forced upon him.

 

What’s Next?

 

Pivetta is only 26 years old and has pitched just 83 games in the major leagues, to write him off as a bust this early on in his career would be a mistake. My personal opinion with Pivetta is he has to be a starting pitcher if he’s to ever succeed. This idea of him working out of the ‘pen and only throwing curveballs and fastballs is terrible (4.22 ERA as a reliever in 2019).

 

As proven by all the in-depth analytics, Pivetta legitimately does have nasty stuff. However, that doesn’t automatically translate onto the mound as people thought. Nick needs to learn more pitches, get right mentally, and get right emotionally. I still believe he can become an above average starter in the MLB, but I don’t know if he has a future with the Phillies. As reported by Jeff Passan of ESPN, “One of the most-asked-for players on the trade market this winter was Phillies right-hander Nick Pivetta”. Nick obviously still holds solid trade value, and with the Phils lack of adequate coaching, it might be in their best interest to sell him while they can.

 

Nick is an interesting case, and overall a very depressing one. Amongst all the numbers and the disappointment, there’s still a young man in there just trying to make it in the ever-competitive MLB. This is my personal opinion on Nick, but I’m curious to see what all of you guys think about him as well, go check out my poll below and voice your opinion on this controversial matter: 

 

 

Twitter: @phillyinsider99

-David Esser via Philly Sports Insider

 

~stats via baseball-reference.commilb.com, mlb.com, baseballamerica.com, nbcsports.com, sportstalkphilly.com, beyondtheboxscore.com~

~image via PhillyVoice.com~

 

 

 

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