DUNEDIN, Fla. -- If the Phillies fall short in their pursuit of Jacob Arrieta, they could move forward with what they have.
They believe it could work. They believe that in part because they believe Nick Pivetta, who allowed two runs in two innings Friday in a 2-1 loss to Toronto in the Grapefruit League opener at Dunedin Stadium, will establish himself as a reliable, effective starter in the National League. The numbers tell them it is possible.
"It's nice to look back at that and see where I finished and move forward," Pivetta said of an encouraging second half last season. "I think my curveball got a lot better. I got more consistent with my slider. But I think out of all of them, I think my fastball just got more consistent in the zone. I was able to put guys away with more quality pitches."
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Pivetta, 25, went 8-10 with a 6.02 ERA in 26 starts. Only six pitchers with 100 or more innings had a higher ERA than Pivetta. But anybody who follows baseball knows that ERA does not tell the whole story.
Pivetta allowed a .300 batting average to opponents in the second half, but his Statcast™ expected batting average (xBA) was just .246. xBA is calculated using exit velocities and launch angles with strikeouts. That 44-point differential put Pivetta just outside the 15 unluckiest starters in the second half.
Pivetta got more ground balls and fewer hard-hit balls in the second half. He reduced the number of hard-hit line drives and fly balls (95 mph-plus exit velocity) from 24.8 percent of his total contact, which was the fifth-highest rate among 153 pitchers with 150 batted balls, to a middle-of-the-pack 16.7 percent.
His curveball also got better. Its average spin rate of 2,830 rpm ranked seventh among 60-plus starters that threw the pitch at least 300 times. The curveball's velocity jumped from 77.6 mph in the first half to 79.5 mph in the second half, which put him in the ballpark of pitchers like Justin Verlander (80.4 mph) and James Paxton (80.5 mph).
The harder Pivetta threw his curveball, the faster the spin. Its average spin rate of 2,899 rpm in September and October rated among the best in baseball. That is worth noting, because Statcast™ numbers through three seasons show that high spin on curveballs correlates with more swings and misses and ground balls.
"My rotations picked up towards the end of the year, and that seemed to lead to the progression of more of a tunneling action from my fastball to my curveball," Pivetta said, explaining that tunneling is the effect of pitches looking like they're coming out of the same chute. Fastballs keep coming straight, while curveballs take a nasty break downward.
But where the Phillies think Pivetta can really take a step forward is with his fastball. It averaged 94.5 mph, and the Phillies want him throwing it up in the strike zone more frequently. Phillies coaches even asked Pivetta to watch how Verlander pitched up in the zone in the postseason. He did.
"I think that's something I can learn from a lot of the time, how [Verlander] did it when he came over to Houston," Pivetta said.
"We identified some pitch characteristics," Phillies manager Gabe Kapler said. "Nick's fastball plays beautifully at various spots in the zone. One of them is up. But if you think about the swing planes we're teaching now, trying to get the ball in the air, getting above those bats is not a terrible thing. Sometimes one of the things that keeps that ball above the bat is a ball that spins really fast. A high spin rate stays up in the zone like that."
If Pivetta can work ahead in the count more frequently in 2018 -- he did that in the second half -- and locate the fastball up in the zone, it should complement his curveball and slider splendidly. And, perhaps, it could give the Phillies one less question mark in the rotation.