Why you should care
Because he’s a crucial arm for a playoff contender.
When Nick Pivetta was in high school in British Columbia, throwing 89 miles per hour with an elbow-damaging sidearm delivery, he looked nothing like a future big league pitcher. He didn’t look good enough even for junior college baseball, where he struggled through 54 innings as a freshman.
But now the 6-foot-5 right-hander is holding down a spot in the rotation for the contending Philadelphia Phillies. It’s a rotation built for October, with former Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta and ace Aaron Nola. “I got lucky,” he says, and the demure Pivetta means it.
It was more than that, of course. Pivetta started working out more efficiently, he says, and his body changed and his fastball started to gain juice at New Mexico Junior College. The Canadian was drafted in the fourth round by the Washington Nationals in 2013 and was traded to Philadelphia for closer Jonathan Papelbon in 2015. Pivetta gained more on that fastball in the minor leagues.
It is a matter of stepping off the mound … not letting the games get too fast.
He looked done with the minors after a strong 2019 spring training, but after four poor starts with the big club to start the season, Pivetta was demoted to Triple-A Lehigh Valley, where he rebounded by going 4-1 and striking out 50 batters in 37 innings.
Back in the major leagues on May 28, he gave up three first-inning runs to St. Louis, but then went on to pitch four shutout innings and earn the win. He followed that up with six shutout innings against the Dodgers on June 2.
Pivetta is a devotee of positive thinking and willpower, and he had to rely on those things during his demotion. Benefits accrue to those who stay level-headed and without panic, especially when you can light up a radar gun with a fastball touching 99 miles per hour. Just check out his Twitter bio, which includes the quote: “When you master your mind, you master your life.” His YouTube tastes are a little different from those of the average big leaguer.
“I watch a lot of Tony Robbins and Gary Vaynerchuk, motivational guys,” Pivetta tells OZY. [The interview was conducted before the sexual misconduct and racism allegations against Robbins surfaced — Editor.] “There is a mental side and you have to master your mind because once you know yourself inside and out and you’re comfortable with yourself, you are going to be able to accomplish anything you want.”
Motivational speaker Gary Vaynerchuk
Pivetta, 26, is still putting that theory to the test.
He was a starter in 2018 and was up and down like a March thermometer. The last month and half of the season, he went cold, losing his last five outings and finishing 7-14. He had alibis available for his record, such as the fact that the Phillies defense was among the worst in baseball. His FIP (things a pitcher can control, like strikeouts, walks, home runs) was above average at 3.79, while his earned run average (ERA) was a less shiny 4.77. “I’m not going to say I pitched better than my ERA. My ERA is my ERA,” Pivetta says, refusing to blame his defense.
The caretakers of the Philly pitchers — manager Gabe Kapler and pitching coach Chris Young — found the positives. “We showed him a little information on outings last year where we asked him to get after it, and he got after it,” Young says. “And then we showed him some results of some other outings maybe where he was trying to work into his velocity.” The message was, essentially: Don’t ease into the game, throw that stinking fastball like you mean it on the first pitch.
Pivetta started throwing the fastball up in the strike zone, and his above-average spin rate made it stick. In a spring start against the Blue Jays, his fastball consistently hit 97, then he popped one 99. To find consistent success, Pivetta says, he must master the chaos and bounce back from allowing multi-run innings. “The game speeds up on you,” he says. “It happens quick. It is a matter of stepping off the mound … not letting the games get too fast.”
Pivetta had early training there. The way he was raised in Victoria, British Columbia, baseball would never lord over him. His mother, Carolyn Gregg, says Nick played for fun at the park starting at age 6, and slowly grew into the game. Pivetta had the kind of family support you hear sports psychologists talk about all the time: Let the game come to the kid, don’t force it on them.
“We’re not those kind of people, pressure-packed people. I wasn’t raised that way,” Gregg says. “Do what you want to do. If you don’t want to do it anymore, let’s go do something else.” Unusual for a Canadian athlete, Pivetta didn’t play hockey because he didn’t want to get up at 5 a.m. for ice time, and, even more unusual, his mother says, he didn’t like to skate. Pivetta did gymnastics when he was 6, then baseball. He really liked soccer and swimming. Tall for his age, he played middle school basketball, but “I sucked,” he says.
Pivetta’s stepfather, Reg Finch-Field, introduced him to the bat and ball. It was all the pace of a hammock swinging in the breeze. Pivetta has watched Arrieta relax by playing the guitar. “You should have made me play the guitar,” Pivetta once said to Reg, who plays. “Nick, we didn’t make you do anything,” Reg replied.
The first time Pivetta thought he might really have a career in the game came when he was 16 years old and pitched for the Canadian Junior National Team in Puerto Rico. But then came the elbow issues and the lower velocity, which was good enough at 16, but not good enough at 18 or 19.
Junior college was career-altering. He started to recover from the elbow issue, which Finch-Field thought was a hyperextension, and, with better nutrition and workouts, he started to gain weight. He also ditched the sidearm delivery and now comes more over the top, though slightly toward three-quarters. The velocity showed up … and so did the scouts.
“I took little steps forward, and I didn’t put a ton of pressure on myself,” he says. “I think not having that pressure as a kid was good for me.”
This year will test the pressure meter. In the offseason, the Phillies traded what many considered their top pitching prospect, Sixto Sanchez, a sign of trust in Pivetta’s future in the rotation. Having become a master of his own mind, it remains to be seen if Pivetta can be a consistent master of hitters. The Phillies think he can.