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Trading Up - Nick Pivetta

When the Phillies called up Nick Pivetta last season, he had made five starts at AAA and put up a 1.41 ERA while averaging a 30% K-rate. Many fantasy owners salivated over the numbers when he arrived. He pitched well enough in his debut (2 Rs, 5 IP, 5 Ks) that many folks were patting themselves on the back for having found a legitimate, high-K starter. In leagues where he wasn’t already owned, he was picked up almost immediately.

Then Nick Pivetta had a season practically designed to alienate as many fantasy owners as possible. He followed his debut with a series of starts that were either quite good (shutting out the Red Sox over seven innings) or quite poor (giving up four runs in five innings to the Cardinals). He was added, dropped, added again. He’d walk four players in one start, and he’d strike out nine in the next. Then on June 26th, he gave up six runs in 2.2 innings, and most managers wrote him off as a player who was just as likely to torch your ERA as he was to help you win.

Pivetta followed up that disaster with a pair of strong, seven-inning performances, and managers proclaimed: “Oh... that terrible start was in Arizona: Chase Field is 'Coors Light.' It was a bad start based on conditions.” Pivetta was again a hot waiver-wire add. Then he burned owners with a five-inning, nine-run, 2.0 WHIP game in Milwaukee. At that point, most owners swore off Pivetta, and he finished the year with a 6.02 ERA.

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As of writing this, Nick Pivetta ranks 43rd among qualified starters in ERA (3.76), 11th in FIP (2.95), and 17th in xFIP (3.36). He ranks 31st in total Ks (76). He is 17th among all pitchers in WAR and 57th among all players. Those numbers were better before his bad-luck start against the Cubs on June 7, and his ERA is good enough for an SP3 in any 12-team league.


Reasons for Optimism

In 2018 Pivetta has been better than just lucky. He’s been excellent in most capacities, and the numbers suggest his ERA should improve rather than regress. He owns an excellent 21.0% K-BB% and an 11.1 swinging strike rate. He’s limited hard contact to just 26.8%, significantly lower than his 35.5% in 2017 and much better than 2018’s league average of 35.2%. Pivetta has shown the ability to generate strikeouts, limit home runs, and control the plate. His .315 xwOBA is better than Clayton Kershaw, Stephen Strasburg, and Zack Greinke.

Pivetta’s minor league performance also offers good reason to see this success as expected rather than an anomaly. His numbers this year look much like the combined numbers of his combined 2016 MiLB performance.

2016-2017 MiLB 180.2 8.72 2.64 16.5% 0.287 1.14 77.2% 0.65 2.94 3.36
2018 MLB 67 10.21 2.42 21.0% 0.312 1.16 73.0% 0.81 3.76 2.95

The reason behind Pivetta’s success seems tied directly to improved execution of all three of his pitches. Paul Martin did a detailed analysis of Pivetta’s pitch quality in 2017 versus 2018. He describes Pivetta’s top-tier spin rate on his curve, the location of his fastball, and the continued strength of his slider. The sustained success and the history of similar performance in AA and AAA are reassuring, and already his Steamer projected ERA has improved from 4.56 to 4.13, a dramatic improvement considering the change is based on only 67 innings of additional work.


Rest-of-Season Profile

Pivetta looks like a top-30 pitcher at this point. With the shaky outing against the Cubs and last year's performance, he can likely be purchased for similar costs as a top-50 SP. The Phillies have controlled his work this year, which has the benefit of reducing the number of hitters who see him three times. It has the unfortunate drawback of also decreasing his wins and quality starts.

Here are updated high and low predictions:

High 13 17 3.22 1.14 210 10.1
Low 9 14 3.86 1.22 175 9.4

Trade Value Around the Diamond

I’m buying Pivetta rather than selling high. However, if you’ve culled pitching all year, and Pivetta is the odd-man out, then you should aim for the high-end targets or you are likely losing value. Notably, during the research for this article, the name that kept popping up was Francisco Cervelli. To me, that means many owners regard Pivetta as a guy who is likely playing above his head and prone to real regression. There’s an argument there, but all the indicators above suggest Pivetta’s value should increase.

C - Low End: Yasmani Grandal, High End: Buster Posey
The stories of Yasmani Grandal’s end have been grossly exaggerated, but I’d still rather have the 25-year-old pitcher than Grandal. Grandal’s power is still there – he could hit 25 HRs while batting .265 – but there’s no reason for the Phillies to shutdown Pivetta before the season’s end, and he’s only on pace for about 175 innings anyway. Posey, Sanchez, and Contreras are probably non-starters, so you’ll likely need to look elsewhere for value if you are trading away Pivetta.

1B - Low End: Eric Hosmer, High End: Jesus Aguilar
Don’t look now, but Eric Hosmer is playing right to his projections as usual. He’s far more valuable in OBP or OPS leagues, but just like Grandal, I’d rather own Pivetta’s upside even though Hosmer’s ranking is higher in most leagues. Aguilar makes a nice target in that fantasy owners are more inclined to trade a guy without major history or reputation. Matt Olson is another bust-or-boom player, especially considering his recent hot streak, and he’s on pace to generate 30 HRs, 95 Rs, and RBIs. If you buy into his recent surge and his batted ball profile, his upside is higher than Aguilar.

2B - Low End: Jed Lowrie, High End: Whit Merrifield
Anyone who missed Lowrie’s 2017 season isn’t going to accept him in trade, but if you are in a 12 or 14-team league, owners who need a 2B should find themselves compelled by two straight seasons of .800+ OPS. He’s a perfectly suitable middle-infielder for those who need one. Another interesting option here is Paul DeJong, whose injury makes him a high-risk, high-reward type asset. Whit Merrifield is a great target who returns good value for Pivetta, but owners may be disinclined to deal him after his excellent May.

SS – Buy Low: Trevor Story, Sell High: Xander Bogaerts or Didi Gregorius
Picking a shortstop target is almost entirely a matter of perspective. If you’re skeptical of Bogaerts’ ability to stay healthy, you could sell him. If Story is too one dimensional, he’s a fine piece to offer. Andrus is coming off an injury that could sap his power. Owners have soured on Didi Gregorius, as though no player ever went through cold stretches. Honestly, I don’t think any of these players constitutes a genuine buy-low exchange, but none of them is such a fantasy stud that he constitutes a sell-high either. I’d probably rank Andrus, Gregorius, and Bogaerts above Pivetta, while leaving Story below Pivetta, but Story has the clearest power potential of all four.

3B – Low End: Kyle Seager, High End: Eugenio Suarez
Kyle Seager is one of my favorite players to watch for halfway through a draft. He’s a solid performer, but he’s not likely to win any leagues for managers. With newcomers like Suarez or even Max Muncy and Matt Davidson, the hot corner is so deep that Seager’s value versus potential replacements is somewhat fungible. Suarez is an underrated asset, who seems destined to remain undervalued in 2019 as well. You can aim higher by targeting Justin Turner or Miguel Sano, but I don’t think either of those players will outperform Suarez. If you really want more value for Pivetta than Suarez, I think you have to go all the way to Mike Moustakas.

OF - Low End: David Peralta, High End: Cody Bellinger
Peralta’s reputation as AJ Pollock-lite has several facets to it, but the fact that both players are underrated, at least until you take their injury history into account is one of the most meaningful. That injury history and the lack of historical basis for this type of power is the reason I’d rather have Pivetta than Peralta. Cody Bellinger is similar to Paul Goldschmidt in that owners are frustrated with his performance so far, and like Goldschmidt, Bellinger’s peripherals suggest his struggles aren’t merely a matter of luck. However, he’s still valuable, and if he shrugs off his sophomore slump, you’ll be much happier with Bellinger.

SP - Low End: Rick Porcello, High End: Carlos Carrasco
If you’re trading pitchers here, I’d recommend trading for the player’s floor, and Rick Porcello's floor is unrosterable in most leagues. He’s been the good Rick Porcello this year, but even his Cy Young version wasn’t actually all that dominant, just ask Kate Upton. Eduardo Rodriguez is likely to be Pivetta’s equal in Ks, ERA, and WHIP by the season’s end, and he’s likely to win more games than Pivetta. However, Pivetta’s health record is better than Rodriguez. If you really want a value play, you could try acquiring Jameson Tailong plus another piece in exchange for Pivetta. Taillon and Pivetta look like similar value pitchers, but Pivetta’s stock is currently higher among most owners. Carrasco is an excellent exchange for Pivetta if you can get him. Carrasco’s ERA has ballooned to 4.23, but his peripherals show that he’s still the same pitcher we’ve known the last two years. You probably can’t trade for someone with higher upside than Pivetta’s ceiling, so if you are going to sell him, Carrasco’s 3.5 ERA floor and likely 14 Ws is a good exchange.

RP - Low End: Fernando Rodney, High End: Edwin Diaz
Standard Disclaimer: Trading for closers is fraught with problems, and I don’t recommend it. Trading away closers can be quite profitable.


A Final Note

In dynasty leagues, I’d love to acquire Pivetta. In redrafts, he is an underrated player for ERA, WHIP, and K/9. On the other hand, strikeouts, wins, and quality starts will be weaker categories because of his limited innings and the relative mediocrity of the Phillies offense. If the team takes Pivetta off the leash, and the offense recovers with Hoskins’ return, those problems could evaporate, but you don’t count on all of that happening.


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