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Outliers: Nick Pivetta is a Flyball’s Worst Enemy

With a string of solid early-season starts, Nick Pivetta has already become a fixture in deeper leagues. After his latest effort, Pivetta is on the verge of entering the fantasy prime time.

The Phillies’ righty had a one-hit shutout against the Pirates through four innings on Sunday, and even with the subsequent blemish of a two-run homer by Elias Diaz, Pivetta had a fine afternoon. He finished with seven strikeouts and just two runs over 6.1 innings. Diaz’s homer didn’t just ruin Pivetta’s shutout, though. Up until the Pirates’ catcher cranked his long fly to left-center, Pivetta had not allowed a home run over his first 26 innings of the 2018 season. For a pitcher who leans towards having flyball tendencies and has a bandbox for a home park, that’s no minor feat.

It’s also not entirely random. Ever since Pivetta debuted last season, he has been extremely adept at keeping hitters from pulling flyballs. As one might expect, hitters generate much more power on pulled flies than on flies to center or the opposite field. So far this season, nearly one of every three pulled flies has resulted in a homer, as compared to a one-in-twenty rate for all other flyballs.

Pivetta’s unique skill has helped him to find a place in more than three-fourths of the leagues on Fantrax and, and now he is gaining in popularity in ESPN leagues, which tend to be shallower. He is the seventh-most added starting pitcher in ESPN leagues, increasing his ownership rate from the last scoring period from 32 to 48 percent.

While Pivetta’s disdain for home runs has added to his fantasy value, owners are probably even more enticed by his high strikeout rate. As a rookie, he registered a robust 24.0 percent K-rate, and over his first five starts of this season, Pivetta has bumped that mark up to 25.5 percent. Better yet, he has trimmed a 9.8 percent walk rate from 2017 down to 3.6 percent so far this year. Those credentials have enabled Pivetta to rank 34th in Roto value among starting pitchers according to ESPN’s Player Rater and 29th among starters in CBS fantasy points (default settings). Still, the Pivetta owners who hope they have plucked a must-start pitcher off waivers have to put a great deal of faith in his five-start sample. He has had exceptional control so far, but it was merely average last year and for much of his minor league career. And while Pivetta has been better than average at getting swinging strikes, he has done only a fair job of freezing batters on pitches in the strike zone.

Despite a mediocre 43.9 percent ground ball rate for his career, the thing that might allow Pivetta to have some staying power as a top-40 starter is his stinginess with home runs. Over his five starts, Pivetta has allowed hitters to launch 24 flyballs, but only one of them has been pulled. Among pitchers who have allowed at least 20 flies this season, only Jose Berrios has been as tough to pull against, as he has yet to give up a pulled flyball. Going back to 2017, there were 108 pitchers — including Pivetta — who gave up at least 125 flyballs, and only Stephen Strasburg had a lower pull rate on flies than Pivetta’s 16.1 percent rookie season mark.

With hitters struggling even more to pull flyballs against Pivetta this season, his career rate has fallen to 14.3 percent. If we go back to the beginning of the 2016 season, no starting pitcher who has allowed at least 250 flies has a pulled flyball rate below 15 percent. The lowest rate of 15.3 percent belongs to Kendall Graveman, and as the table below shows, only six other pitchers have rates below 18 percent.

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The table also shows that being extremely good at avoiding pulled flies does not guarantee a pitcher will be extremely good at avoiding home runs. Wade Miley allowed hard flyball contact at a high rate, and correspondingly, his home run-to-flyball ratio (HR/FB) was far above the major league average. Kendall Graveman would likely have a similarly high HR/FB if not for pitching home games at Oakland Coliseum, where he has posted an 11.8 percent HR/FB over the last two-plus seasons. Carlos Martinez has not been able to leverage his low pulled fly rate into a svelte HR/FB, as his hard contact rate on flies has been slightly elevated.

Last season, Pivetta finished with a 43.8 percent hard contact rate on flyballs. Given that he pitches home games at cozy Citizens Bank Park, that puts him in the Miley Zone as a home run risk, and sure enough, he coughed up 15 home runs in 64 home innings. This season has been a different story, as Pivetta has lowered his hard contact rate on flies to 37.5 percent — lower than Martinez’s mark from 2016 forward, but not quite at James Paxton’s level.

Perhaps Pivetta’s best comp for 2018 is the 2017 version of J.A. Happ — a good strikeout pitcher with fair control who was above average at keeping flyballs from being hard hit and pulled. If Pivetta continues to be extreme in his ability to prevent pulled flies, he may be better than Happ circa 2017, even if he is not exceptionally good at limiting hard contact. Should Pivetta maintain his current strikeout and walk rates, he could improve greatly on Happ’s 3.53 ERA and 1.31 WHIP. In short, there is a strong chance Pivetta will be worth keeping on a 12-team mixed league roster all season long, and some signs point to him spending the vast majority of the season in your rotation and not on the bench.

Streaming Starting Pitcher Update: For the second week in a row, I did not add a two-start pitcher via FAAB in either Tout Wars or TGFBI, so there will be no new data for my comparison of streamed two-start pitchers and the one-start pitchers I benched or dropped to make room. It wasn’t for lack of trying, but I didn’t bid aggressively enough for Chad Bettis.

Statistical credits: FanGraphs.

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