SPECULATOR: Avoiding this year's Nick Pivetta

The hype was real.

At this time last year, Nick Pivetta (RHP, PHI) was shooting up draft boards as a Top 150 pick despite a 4.77 ERA the previous season. Why? He was "everyone's favorite sleeper" thanks to some excellent underlying skills (3.53 xERA, 3.7 Cmd, 135 BPV). Pivetta and fellow helium-mate Shane Bieber (RHP, CLE) were in pretty rare company this time last year:

The answer to "??" in that tweet? A 3.28 ERA for Bieber, and a 5.38 for Pivetta.

In hindsight, it's laughable that Pivetta and Bieber were ever considered in the same stratosphere, but that decision was a coin flip last year, with reasonable arguments on both sides. Bieber helped win leagues—and the eight pitchers listed in this column have that type of ceiling—but we can learn a few things from Pivetta's 2019 to hopefully be on the right side of that coin in 2020:

Ricky Nolasco Syndrome (RNS) — A rare disease, RNS affects pitchers who routinely disappoint despite having strong underlying skills that keep us coming back (too) early in drafts. Pivetta showed symptoms of RNS in 2018 with that sizable stats/skills divide; it led to a full-blown outbreak in 2019. Other recent starters diagnosed with RNS? Chris Archer, Jon Gray, Michael Pineda, and perhaps most recently, Joe Musgrove.

An inconsistent third pitch — Maybe we should've double-checked the scouting reports. Going back to Pivetta's 2017 call-up report, our own Jeremy Deloney noted that while Pivetta had a solid fastball and hard curveball, his "middling slider and change-up" led us to a mediocre 7C prospect rating. Pivetta threw his fastball and curveball nearly 80% of the time in 2019, and when the fastball effectiveness waned (48% usage, 8% swinging-strike rate, 1.131 opposing OPS), the results quickly turned disastrous.

So in the spirit of avoiding busts instead of hitting on breakouts—we looked at avoiding this year's Jesus Aguilar last week—we'll hone in on RNS candidates and those in need of a third pitch to help guide our search for the 2020 version of Nick Pivetta.

American League

Tyler Glasnow (RHP, TAM) | ADP: 70

Year   IP   ERA/xERA  Ctl   Dom  Cmd  FpK/SwK  H%/S%  BPV
====  ===  =========  ===  ====  ===  =======  =====  ===
2017   62  7.69/6.04  6.4   8.1  1.3  56%/ 8%  36/64   -5
2018  112  4.27/3.44  4.3  11.0  2.6  58%/12%  29/70  110
2019   61  1.78/2.98  2.1  11.3  5.4  58%/12%  27/84  175

A Top 75 pick who's never thrown 115+ innings in an MLB season? Sounds like a perfect target for this column. Glasnow has been dominant on a per-game basis since he joined TAM's rotation in August 2018, but forearm issues cost him most of 2019 and he's struggled to find a consistent third pitch since he transitioned from the bullpen. Granted, Glasnow's fastball/curveball combo is nasty and he's tinkering with a split-finger this spring, but we have to wonder how far he can go with just two offerings; assuming his arm even cooperates. The 2020 Baseball Forecaster summed things up perfectly: "Sky-high ceiling, but with more risk than you may realize"... and that was before Glasnow started shooting up draft boards.

Frankie Montas (RHP, OAK) | ADP: 122

Year   IP   ERA/xERA  Ctl   Dom  Cmd  FpK/SwK  H%/S%  BPV
====  ===  =========  ===  ====  ===  =======  =====  ===
2017   32  7.03/5.16  5.6  10.1  1.8  63%/12%  35/69   43
2018   65  3.88/4.76  2.9   6.0  2.1  59%/ 9%  33/74   51
2019   96  2.63/3.54  2.2   9.7  4.4  61%/12%  31/80  143

Montas pitched like an ace through 15 starts before getting hit with an 80-game PED suspension last June. The advent of a new split-finger (21% SwK, 63% GB%) drove legitimate gains in every major skill metric, but with an ADP in the Top 125, you're betting that the Montas we saw in just under a half-season will stick going forward. Montas had BPVs of 43 and 51 in 2017 and 2018, respectively, making our "But can he do it again?" rhetorical in the Forecaster a valid question to ask. Perhaps the new pitch mix vaults Montas into the next tier of starters, but the small-sample gains and limited workload—Montas has never thrown 120 innings in a season—should have you questioning his rising draft cost.

Matt Boyd (LHP, DET) | 168 ADP

Year   IP   ERA/xERA  Ctl   Dom  Cmd  FpK/SwK  H%/S%  FB%  BPV
====  ===  =========  ===  ====  ===  =======  =====  ===  ===
2017  130  5.25/5.17  3.5   7.4  2.1  60%/10%  33/68  40%   53
2018  170  4.39/4.55  2.7   8.4  3.1  58%/11%  27/67  50%   85
2019  185  4.56/3.90  2.4  11.6  4.8  64%/15%  33/71  45%  156

Boyd ditched his curveball and two-seam fastball last season, leaning nearly exclusively on two pitches: his four-seamer (11% SwK, 49% usage) and slider (20% SwK; 36% usage). The combo was dominant early on (2.85 ERA through May) and led to a major uptick in strikeouts, but Boyd's FB% tendencies and Ctl erosion did him in over the summer. As it stands, the 29-year-old lacks a reliable third pitch and has failed to post a sub-4.30 ERA in any of his five MLB seasons, while 2019 was his first year with an 8.5+ Dom or triple-digit BPV.

Andrew Heaney (LHP, LAA) | ADP: 194

Year   IP   ERA/xERA  Ctl   Dom  Cmd  FpK/SwK  H%/S%  BPV
====  ===  =========  ===  ====  ===  =======  =====  ===
2017   22  7.06/4.60  3.7  11.2  3.0  61%/14%  31/79  109
2018  180  4.15/3.75  2.3   9.0  3.9  65%/12%  31/70  120
2019   95  4.91/4.11  2.8  11.1  4.0  63%/15%  33/69  136

A quick scan of the IP column above with the injury log below underscores the obvious risk with Heaney:

Heaney can miss bats with a one-two punch of sinkers and curveballs, but like Pivetta, he doesn't have a consistent third pitch to lean on. Also like Pivetta, Heaney has some RNS in him—he hasn't had a sub-4.00 ERA despite posting triple-digit BPVs in each of the last three seasons. He's also being taken in the point of the draft where volume is still needed out of your mid-rotation starters. So sure, Heaney could buck the trend by finally getting his ERA in the 3s and exceeding our 145 IP projection, but we wouldn't bet on it.

 

National League

Brandon Woodruff (RHP, MIL) | ADP: 89

Year   IP   ERA/xERA  Ctl   Dom  Cmd  FpK/SwK  H%/S%  BPV
====  ===  =========  ===  ====  ===  =======  =====  ===
2017   43  4.81/4.61  2.9   6.7  2.3  62%/ 9%  30/65   66
2018   42  3.61/3.32  3.0  10.0  3.3  56%/11%  31/72  130
2019  121  3.62/3.43  2.2  10.6  4.8  61%/12%  33/71  153

Woodruff's excellent 2019 season had us tabbing him a "near ace" in the Forecaster, but the Pivetta-type helium is kicking in—Woodruff's ADP has jumped from 93 in November to 76 thus far in February. Woodruff has dealt with a number of recent non-arm related injuries (oblique in 2019; hamstring in 2017) and hasn't yet reached 200 career MLB innings. His pitch mix carries some risk as well, given the lack of a legitimate put-away pitch. From 2019:

Pitch      Usage  SwK (Lg-Avg%)
=========  =====  =============
4-Seam FB   38%     12% ( 9%)
2-Seam FB   26%      9% ( 6%)
Slider      20%     12% (17%)
Change-up   14%     15% (16%)

Let's count the ways this could go bad: 1) injuries strike once more, and Woodruff fails to exceed last year's innings total; 2) he exceeds it, but breaks down as he enters uncharted workload territory; or 3) the fastball effectiveness slips without a plus secondary to fall back on. Despite Woodruff's attractive skills, a lot needs to go right for him to return full value at this price.

Dinelson Lamet (RHP, SD) | ADP: 124

Year   IP   ERA/xERA  Ctl   Dom  Cmd  FpK/SwK  H%/S%  BPV
====  ===  =========  ===  ====  ===  =======  =====  ===
2017  114  4.57/4.07  4.3  10.9  2.5  56%/13%  28/68   97
2018  ----------------DID NOT PITCH (TJS)----------------
2019   73  4.07/3.53  3.7  12.9  3.5  60%/14%  33/74  147

Lamet returned last August after an 18-month layoff (Tommy John surgery), peaking at the optimal time to be pushed up this draft season. The 27-year-old posted an absurd 31/7 K/BB in his last three starts of 2019, leaning heavily on a dominant slider as his primary pitch (24% SwK, 44% usage). Lamet's now a Top 125 pick despite having never posted a sub-4.00 ERA, thrown 115+ MLB innings in a season, or developed a consistent third pitch. There's a chance Lamet goes "full Patrick Corbin" with his extreme slider usage, but that approach should be considered the exception, not the rule.

Zac Gallen (RHP, ARI) | ADP: 131

Year   IP   ERA/xERA  Ctl   Dom  Cmd  FpK/SwK  H%/S%  BPV
====  ===  =========  ===  ====  ===  =======  =====  ===
2019   80  2.81/4.09  4.1  10.8  2.6  67%/13%  29/81  102

The industry-wide love for Gallen began in earnest at First Pitch Arizona last October and hasn't slowed since. The hype makes sense—Gallen has elite sub-indicators (SwK, FpK) thanks to a nasty change-up (22% SwK, 65% GB%) and effective curveball/cutter—but in true Speculator fashion, let's play a bit of devil's advocate. Gallen's fortunate S% drove a wedge between his ERA and xERA, he flashed shaky control (4.1 Ctl) and a subpar 39% GB%, and most importantly, he's only thrown 80 career innings at the MLB level. Gallen could well break out and blow away his expensive draft cost, but Everyone's Favorite Sleeper is starting to get a little pricey.

German Marquez (RHP, COL) | ADP: 175

Year   IP   ERA/xERA  Ctl   Dom  Cmd  FpK/SwK  H%/S%  BPV
====  ===  =========  ===  ====  ===  =======  =====  ===
2017  162  4.39/4.23  2.7   8.2  3.0  60%/10%  32/73   97
2018  196  3.77/3.22  2.6  10.6  4.1  65%/13%  32/73  144
2019  174  4.76/3.69  1.8   9.1  5.1  64%/13%  31/65  141

Marquez is one of just five starters (min. 170 IP) with a 140+ BPV in each of the last two seasons. The others? Gerrit Cole, Jacob deGrom, Justin Verlander, and Max Scherzer. Rare company for sure, but Marquez has a 4.00+ ERA in two of the last three seasons, and resides in a hotspot for RNS: Coors Field. Marquez's underlying skills were a mirror image from 2018 to 2019, but he posted a brutal 6.26 ERA and 1.55 WHIP at home (3.67 ERA, 0.94 WHIP on the road). As long as Marquez calls Colorado home, he'll be prone to Pivetta-level heartbreak—Coors Field remains undefeated—so deploy with care.

 

The Speculator is not designed to make definitive assertions about the future; rather, it is designed solely to open the reader's eyes to possibilities they may not have previously entertained, and in doing so, provide a different perspective on the future. Many of the possibilities will be of the "out on a limb" variety. All are founded on SOME element of fact. But none should be considered any more than 20% percentage plays.


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  For more information about the terms used in this article, see our Glossary Primer.