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Is Nick Pivetta Cy Young Bound?

By Brandon Musso, Sports Talk Philly Staff 

On Sunday, Matt Kelly of MLB.com wrote an article outlining his sleeper Cy Young Award candidates for the upcoming season. There were 12 players that he labeled sleepers, some not at all surprising but others were shocking. Among those “others” was Phillies' starting pitcher Nick Pivetta. Yes, you read that right, Nick Pivetta and the Cy Young Award.

If you did a double take, you’re not alone. Pivetta posted a 7-14 record with an ERA of 4.77 last season. It gets you asking the question: how can that guy with those numbers push himself into the Cy Young Award conversation? Well Kelly attempts to break down why he put Pivetta on his list but leaves his explanation brief. He offers two main points. The first is Pivetta’s strikeout and ground ball rates which turned out to rank up with top tier MLB starters in 2018. Kelly points out that Pivetta “was one of just seven qualified starters with a strikeout rate above 25 percent and a ground-ball rate above 45 percent.”

Those seven starters: Carlos Carrasco, Patrick Corbin, Jacob deGrom, German Marquez, Charlie Morton, and Aaron Nola.



All six, aside from Marquez who is also one of Kelly’s sleeper picks, had much better results last season. Pivetta posting similar strikeout and ground ball rates to those pitchers means he has the potential to eventually get the same results. 

Kelly’s second point, which plays heavily into the first point, is the Phillies’ defense. Much has been made about the Phillies’ serious struggles with defense in 2018, which could have heavily contributed to Pivetta’s struggles. Think about it, a pitcher with a high ground ball rate with a bad defense behind him. It doesn’t seem like a match made in heaven. 

Now, by moving Rhys Hoskins back to first base and bringing in Jean Segura, the Phillies have vastly improved their infield defense. It appears that could potentially benefit Pivetta.

With that in mind, I decided to look deeper into his high ground ball rate hoping to find the answer as to why he isn’t getting better results. Below is a chart of the 2018 MLB leaders in groundball percentage with their BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) on ground balls and ERA.

Rank

Name

Ground Ball Percentage

BABIP – Ground Balls

ERA

1

Dallas Keuchel

53.7%

.212

3.74

2

Jake Arrieta

51.6%

.205

3.96

3

Aaron Nola

50.6%

.189

2.37

4

Kyle Gibson

49.8%

.189

3.62

5

Jose Urena

49.6%

.219

3.98

15

Nick Pivetta

46.7%

.322

4.77

The chart shows some stark contrasts that seem to hurt Pivetta. While he has been inducing ground balls at a high rate, they are not translating into outs at a high rate. The top five pitchers in ground ball rates are benefiting from the fact that their induced ground balls are turning into outs at a much higher clip than Pivetta. The top five’s BABIP on ground balls are all low .200 with some under .200. As a result, all five also sport a sub-four ERA.

Pivetta’s BABIP on ground balls sits at .322 while he sports an ERA approaching five. It seems to indicate that there is at least some correlation between how many of Pivetta’s ground balls are becoming hits and his ERA results.

Now, there is one glaringly obvious part of that chart that shows that maybe the Phillies’ defense isn’t negatively affecting Pivetta as much as it initially seemed. Jake Arrieta and Aaron Nola both pitched in front the same defense that Pivetta did and their BABIP on ground balls were significantly lower than Pivetta’s.

There could be several reasons why this is but it’s incredibly hard to pinpoint exactly why exactly his BABIP on ground balls appears to almost be an outlier among the top ground ball percentage pitchers. Maybe he just fell on a series of bad breaks that seemingly lasted all season or maybe the infield shifts have just not been working in his favor.

Obviously BABIP on ground balls doesn’t tell the entire story of a pitcher’s ERA, much more goes into it. However, at the very least, if Pivetta falls on better luck or the Phillies’ infield shifts become more effective, we could see Pivetta’s ERA drop and start seeing the results that we expect from him.

In the end, it just doesn’t seem that far out of the question anymore that Pivetta might be a Cy Young winner someday.

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