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Champ or Chump - Nick Pivetta and Joey Lucchesi

Personally, I've always been a little leery of pitching breakouts at first. If an offensive acquisition goes sideways, they can't do any worse than zeroes in HR, RBI, runs scored, and stolen bases. By contrast, pitchers can provide negative value in ERA and WHIP to accompany zeroes in W, S, and Ks. If your league uses K/9 or an innings cap, pitchers have a third rate stat to ruin.

Of course, avoiding pitchers on waivers entirely is a great way to fall well short of your IP goals. The resulting balancing act is one of the most important aspects of fantasy baseball. Both Nick Pivetta and Joey Lucchesi have gone from complete unknowns to roster mainstays over the last few days.

Was their ascent warranted?

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The Fantasy Jury is Out

Nick Pivetta (SP, PHI) 40% Owned

Pivetta actually compiled 133 IP at the MLB level last year. You'd be forgiven for not noticing, as his 6.02 ERA was ugly. His 4.26 xFIP was better, but still not enough to demand attention in the average fantasy league. That has changed this year, as Pivetta has a 2.49 ERA (and 3.00 xFIP) through 21 2/3 IP this season.

Pivetta's track record is short enough to make his minor league numbers worth a look. He tossed 124 IP at Double-A Reading in 2016, posting a 3.41 ERA and 3.69 xFIP. That may not sound great, but Reading is an extreme hitter's park (1.072 ballpark factor for runs scored, 1.427 for HR, 1.019 for hits from 2014-2016). Pivetta managed to avoid the long ball (8.4% HR/FB) and the BABIP gods (.283) in 2016, suggesting that he was either incredibly lucky or a contact management champ.

Unfortunately, that campaign was his only stop with a decent sample size before he cracked the majors. The rest of his numbers were pedestrian (43.3% GB%, 21.6% K%, 8% BB%), suggesting the upside of a number-three SP at best.

That changed briefly in his 32 IP at Triple-A Lehigh Valley before his MLB debut last season. He struck out 30.1% of the batters who faced him against a BB% of just 1.6%, suggesting that he really figured something out. The resulting ERA (1.41) and xFIP (2.84) were outstanding. The Ks translated to the major leagues last year (24% K%), but the walks came back (9.8% BB%) and his BABIP soared (.332) en route to his 6.02 ERA.

This season, Pivetta's K% has held steady (24.4%) while his BB% plummeted toward where it was at Triple-A (2.3%). That's really good, but it's not clear that Pivetta's repertoire is strong enough to sustain it.

Pivetta has a three pitch mix: fastball, slider, and curve. His heater is getting a lot more whiffs this season (6.4% SwStr% vs. 9.1%), but its spin rate (2,241 RPM this year vs. 2,268 last), Zone% (58% vs. 56.9%), and velocity (95 mph vs. 94.7) all suggest that it's the same pitch. Regression is likely in order, leaving Pivetta with a mediocre fastball.

Pivetta is throwing his curve more often (15.5% last season, 27% this year) at the expense of his heater (66% to 59%), but he may have chosen the wrong secondary pitch to focus on. His curve has seldom been chased outside of the zone over Pivetta's young career (32.7% chase), but manages a solid SwStr% (11.1%) and Zone% (44.8%) regardless.

The problem is that Pivetta's slider is the same thing but better. It has a SwStr% of 17.1% over the 25-year old's career, adding a slightly above average chase rate (36.6%) to a reasonable 41% Zone%. It's clearly Pivetta's best pitch, but he's actually throwing it slightly less often than he did last year (14.3% vs. 12.4%).

Once his fastball regresses and the walks creep back up, Pivetta is likely to be burned by his still elevated BABIP (.311 so far) and hostile home park (111 park factor for HR last year). Optimists may point to Pivetta's declining FB% (32.2% vs. 36.3% last year) as evidence that what he's doing is sustainable, but he's turned them into equally harmful line drives (23.7% vs. 19.9%). Pivetta might be a good streamer, but he's not yet a set-and-forget type.

Verdict: Chump


Joey Lucchesi (SP, SD) 66% Owned

This 25-year old has the strangest profile in Champ or Chump history. He came out of nowhere to post a 1.66 ERA and 2.66 xFIP over his first 21 2/3 IP this year, backing up the impressive ratios with a 29.8% K% and 4.8% BB%. How is he doing this with a 91.2 mph fastball?

The answer is deception so powerful that it has confused Statcast. FanGraphs gives Lucchesi two whole pitches: a fastball thrown 60.5% of the time and a change thrown 39.5% of the time. The fastball plays up despite its mediocre velocity, posting a 10.6% SwStr% and 55.8% Zone% so far. The change has a nice SwStr% (19.2%) despite rarely being chased outside the zone (32.9% chase rate), instead doing most of its damage in the zone (43.9% Zone%). It's slow enough (79.9 mph) to offer a strong differential with his fastball, but it's right to be skeptical of a two-pitch starter.

The deception Lucchesi brings to the table became apparent when I tried to look up his spin rates on Baseball Savant. My search came up empty for four-seam fastballs, so I tried sinkers (150 thrown) and 2-seam fastballs (49). These two pitch types are usually interchangeable, so it's common to search for one, find nothing, and then discover the data you want on the other one. Neither is interchangeable with a 4-seamer though, and I've never seen somebody who throws both. This probably suggests that Lucchesi has two fastballs just different enough to keep hitters off balance.

My search for Lucchesi's change also came up empty, as Statcast calls it a curve. Lucchesi calls his non-fastball a "churve," so it's apparently some kind of hybrid between the two. Anyway, I've never seen FanGraphs and Statcast disagree on a pitch type besides sinker/2-seamer before.

My confusion only increased when I looked into his minor league history. Lucchesi struck out the world while walking nobody in the low minors, compiling a 36.1% K% and 1.4% BB% over 40 IP at Low-A in 2016 before a 30.5% K% and 6.1% BB% over 78 2/3 IP at High-A in 2017. His numbers weren't quite as strong as Double-A San Antonio last year (22.4% K%, 5.9% BB%), but he still posted a 1.79 ERA (3.39 xFIP) over 60 1/3 IP there.

San Antonio is a pitcher's park (0.914 runs scored, 0.683 HR, 0.982 Hits), but his performance was still good. Lucchesi is deceptive enough to fool Statcast, minor league hitters, and MLB hitters. He gets to call Petco Park home. His two-pitch approach shouldn't work, but it seems likely that it will for a little while at least. What a strange profile.

Verdict: Champ


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