The Red Sox are moving right-hander Nick Pivetta into a multi-inning relief role, manager Alex Cora informed reporters after tonight’s win over the Mariners (relayed by Alex Speier of the Boston Globe). It’ll be his first bullpen work since Boston acquired him from the Phillies during the abbreviated 2020 campaign.
Pivetta has been a durable but somewhat frustrating starter over his two and a half seasons in Boston. He topped 30 starts and 150 innings in both 2021-22, leading the team with 179 2/3 frames last year. He’s flashed decent swing-and-miss stuff but been prone to a few too many walks and plenty of hard contact. His ERA sat just north of 4.50 in both seasons.
It has been more of the same for the 30-year-old to this point in 2023. Pivetta has taken all eight turns through the rotation and logged 40 innings of 6.30 ERA ball. While his 23% strikeout rate and 10.7% swinging strike percentage are respectable, he has issued free passes at an elevated 10.4% clip. Pivetta has surrendered nine home runs and given up hard contact on a massive 51.7% of batted balls. He’s perhaps fortunate to have surrendered “only” a .309 batting average on balls in play in light of that contact quality.
Pivetta hasn’t traditionally dealt with notable platoon splits throughout his career. Left-handed hitters have put together a .268/.361/.592 batting line in 84 trips to the plate this season though. The Red Sox aren’t planning to use him in a strict matchup capacity, although the relief role could afford Cora a little more flexibility in deploying him against more right-handed batters.
The organization obviously hopes Pivetta’s high-octane arsenal can translate more effectively in shorter bursts. He has averaged 93.8 MPH on his fastball out of the rotation. It wouldn’t be a surprise if that ticked up a bit in briefer stints that allow Pivetta to max out his effort, so it’s not hard to envision him finding success in a relief capacity.
Pivetta saw some relief work with the Phillies four years ago. He’s otherwise worked primarily as a starter, opening 144 of his 166 MLB outings. He’s spoken on a few occasions this season of his desire to stick in the rotation. Boston has a number of starting pitching options, though, and Pivetta’s struggles over the past month and a half apparently leave him the odd man out. Pivetta told reporters this evening he understands the club’s decision (via Chris Cotillo of MassLive).
Boston recently activated James Paxton from the injured list. The veteran southpaw joined Chris Sale, Corey Kluber, Brayan Bello, Tanner Houck and Pivetta in the starting staff. Garrett Whitlock is on the 15-day IL and could return by the end of next week. Cora has already announced they’ll keep Whitlock in the rotation, while Sale is a lock for the starting staff. The Red Sox have been reluctant to put Paxton in an unfamiliar relief role in light of his injury history. Kluber hasn’t pitched well this year but he’s a career-long starter who signed a $10MM free agent contract over the offseason. It seemed unlikely Boston would kick him into the bullpen or move on entirely.
That appeared to leave Houck, Bello and Pivetta jockeying for rotation spots. All three carried an ERA north of 5.00. Bello and Houck have comparable strikeout rates to Pivetta with significantly higher ground-ball rates. They’ve been more consistent strike throwers. They’ll each keep their rotation spots for now, though Whitlock’s eventual reinstatement could lead to another change.
Pivetta has surpassed five years of major league service and was out of minor league options regardless. The Red Sox can’t send him to the minors without his approval, leaving a bullpen transfer or DFA as the only options to bump him from the rotation. It’s possible Pivetta gets another look as a starter down the line if future injuries necessitate. He’s making $5.35MM this season and will be eligible for arbitration once more next winter.