By J.P. Antonacci
Canadian Baseball Network
Nick Pivetta struck out almost a quarter of the batters he faced last year in his rookie season, an impressive number even in this swing-and-miss era.
But the 25-year-old from Victoria, B.C., says that while strikeouts are fun, they aren’t his focus.
“As long as I can get that batter out, I’m happy,” he said. “If I strike a guy out, it’s awesome. But at the end of the day, as long as I can get that guy out in four pitches or less, or three pitches or less, it’s a good day for me.”
Pivetta makes his regular-season debut on Friday when his Philadelphia Phillies take on the Atlanta Braves. Keeping pitch counts to a minimum will help him reach his stated sophomore-season goal of topping 200 innings “and progressively, actively get[ting] better each year.”
Last season the lanky right-hander experienced the ups and downs that come with the territory when making the leap to the bigs. His penchant for strikeouts – 144 in 130 innings across 26 starts – saw him rank first among rookies with a 9.47 K/9 rate (minimum 125 innings).
In an especially memorable outing, Pivetta matched Red Sox ace Chris Sale over seven scoreless frames on June 15, adding nine Ks for good measure in a game the Phillies won 1-0.
Pivetta ended his season with a 16-inning scoreless streak, fuelling optimism that he can tame his walk rate (he gave free passes to nearly one in 10 batters last year) and keep more fly balls in the ballpark, which should lower his 6.02 career earned run average.
According to new Phillies bench coach Rob Thomson (Corunna, Ont.), Pivetta has the right mentality to blossom into a solid major league starter.
“Tremendous prepare, competitor, and really good stuff,” said Thomson, who managed a split-squad spring training game on March 16 in which Pivetta limited the Detroit Tigers to two runs and a walk with five strikeouts over five innings.
“He pitched against a good-hitting Detroit team and his stuff was electric,” Thomson said. “He’s got a great future ahead of him, he really does. He’s got the makeup, mental toughness, to have a chance to be really good.”
It will be hard for Pivetta to top last season as far as baseball milestones go. With his family and friends in the stands, the Canadian made his major league debut in Los Angeles on April 30, two years after the Phillies acquired the 2013 fourth-round draft pick from the Washington Nationals in exchange for closer Jonathan Papelbon.
Pivetta took the loss that day, allowing two runs on nine hits over five innings with five strikeouts and a walk. But in making that start, the Victoria Eagles Baseball Club alumnus lived out a dream that began while he was a young pitcher watching fellow Victorian Rich Harden and Blue Jays ace Roy Halladay, whom Pivetta would later meet as a Phillies prospect.
“When I was younger, a big (influence) was Rich Harden,” Pivetta said. “And then as I grew up, I would come home every day at four o’clock and watch the Blue Jays play because they were my favourite team. Always watching Roy Halladay – he was a massive idol of mine. Having that kind of mindset really helped me get to where I am today.”
Playing with the Canadian Junior National Team gave Pivetta a taste of what competing for his home country felt like, and he considered it “a great honour” when Baseball Canada asked him to join their World Baseball Classic roster last March.
“Being able to play on that team was definitely a dream come true, right there with making my MLB debut,” he said. “I got two of my dreams in one year, so it was a good way to start the 2017 season.”
Playing alongside the likes of Justin Morneau (New Westminster, B.C.), Eric Gagne (Mascouche, Que.), Russell Martin (Montreal, Que.) and Freddie Freeman made quite an impression on the rookie.
“Getting to learn from those guys while I was there, taking the most of that – being on that team was huge for me,” said Pivetta, who added that he would be ready should Baseball Canada come calling when it comes time to construct a roster for the 2021 World Baseball Classic.
“Oh, of course. Always play for Team Canada,” Pivetta said.
In the meantime, he’ll try to cement a place in the Phillies' rotation. His dominant minor league track records suggests that his command issues from last season can be overcome, and his ability to miss bats should help him limit the gopher balls that hobbled him at times.
More telling is how Pivetta describes his dual focus on being aggressive and thinking positive while on the field.
“I just take every failure as a lesson and learn from that, and don’t take that one time for granted. Always look back at what I did right, what I did wrong, and learn from what I did wrong so I don’t do it again,” he said.
“And having fun, at the end of the day, too. Because it is a game, it’s a fun game, and it’s a blessing that I get to play at this level every day.”