What went wrong with Phillies starter Nick Pivetta?


The Phillies' demotion Wednesday morning of Nick Pivetta to Triple A did not qualify as a total shock based on how he's pitched but was slightly surprising given how much this organization has talked him up over the last six months.

Phillies decision-makers entered the season very high on Pivetta because of the velocity and finish he showed with his fastball for parts of last season, the command of his curveball and slider he showed in April and May, and the impressive season-long strikeout and walk numbers he posted.

But early in 2019, he just didn't have enough. He wasn't close to the pitcher we saw the first two months of 2018, when he posted a 3.26 ERA in his first 11 starts. At that point, Pivetta was missing bats at the top of the zone to finish hitters off, and his opponents were a combined 12 for 90 (.133) against his curveball and slider.

In spring training, Pivetta flashed. His fastball overpowered hitters and was being thrown on a downhill plane that made it even harder to hit. In two of his spring training starts, Pivetta looked like the best player on the field.

Then the regular season began.

In Pivetta's first four starts, he had an 8.35 ERA and his opponents hit .383. He put 40 men on base in 18⅓ innings. 

It did not seem as though the Phils were ready to make this move before the events of Tuesday night. You just couldn't ignore the difference in the way Pivetta and Jerad Eickhoff attacked Mets hitters with a huge lead.

Pivetta was spotted a 10-run lead in the first inning Tuesday but was unable to pound the strike zone and make quick work of the Mets despite all that wiggle room. He ended up allowing 11 baserunners in five innings, putting at least two men on base in all but one inning. He was also taken deep twice.

The Phillies entered Tuesday night needing length out of the Pivetta-Eickhoff combo because the bullpen had been used in 21 of the previous 36 innings. But you could tell early it wasn't going to be a long night for Pivetta, who threw 100 pitches (59 for strikes) in his five innings.

Eickhoff then mowed through the Mets' order with four shutout innings. He struck out six and did not overuse his curveball, throwing it 18 times compared to 21 fastballs and 20 cutters. With how crucial the curve is to Eickhoff's success, it was a positive sign to see him get outs with other pitches too. 

Eickhoff's first start of the season lines up to be this Sunday at Coors Field, where curveballs go to die. A study conducted several years ago showed that curveballs at Coors Field average 1.5 fewer inches of drop than they do elsewhere because of the altitude. A strong showing from Eickhoff would be a massive confidence-builder, but expectations shouldn't be six scoreless innings.

As for Pivetta, he's now off to Lehigh Valley to try to find fastball command, sharp break on his curveball and confidence of his own. Getting pounded the way he did in these first four starts took a toll.

Whether or not Pivetta succeeds at the major-league level will be determined by how well he's able to spot his pitches on the corners. He left far too many pitches over the middle of the plate and the mitt just didn't pop the way it did this time last year. The opposition hit .415 against his fastball and .351 against his curveball and slider.

The demotion does not mean we've seen the last of Pivetta. If he rattles off two or three very good starts at Triple A and Eickhoff struggles or another pitcher is injured, Pivetta could be right back up. The Phillies aren't closing the book on Pivetta but rather trying to rewrite several early chapters.

At some point this season, the Phillies will need to add another starting pitcher. They've received just six quality starts in 16 games, and while they've gone 10-6 despite it, there will be stretches when the offense goes cold and more reliable starting pitching is needed. Especially with this team having aspirations of playing deep into October, not just making it there.

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