Nick Pivetta's bullpen transition is his last chance to secure his Red Sox future

Seattle Mariners v Boston Red Sox
Seattle Mariners v Boston Red Sox / Nick Grace/GettyImages

The Boston Red Sox are removing Nick Pivetta from their starting rotation. How the right-hander handles the demotion will go a long way in determining if he has a future with this organization.

The decision came down to a numbers crunch for a Red Sox team that suddenly has an abundance of starting pitchers, as manager Alex Cora explained to The Boston Globe's Alex Speier.

“It’s where we’re at. We’re getting healthy. We have a lot of starters," said Cora. "Just dominate your role. We’ve seen him do it before.”

The six-man rotation was never meant to last long and the Red Sox have eight pitchers who have made at least one start this season. James Paxton's encouraging season debut keeps him in the mix and Garrett Whitlock is expected to reclaim his spot when he's activated later this month. Something had to give to alleviate this logjam.

Boston's rotation has been brutal to begin this season, ranking as the third-worst in the majors with a collective 5.75 ERA. None of their starters have been good but Pivetta has been particularly awful. His 6.30 ERA is tied for the eighth-worst in the majors among pitchers with 40+ innings and his 6.99 xERA is fourth-worst. Pivetta's -0.2 fWAR has made him one of the five least valuable starting pitchers in the majors this season.

Nick Pivetta has an opportunity to carve out a new role with the Red Sox

Pivetta scoffed at the idea of moving to the bullpen when the topic was broached earlier this month during a series in Atlanta. He bristled at the suggestion that he was auditioning for his role in the rotation and seemed baffled by the concept, despite that he was shelled for a season-high seven runs by the Braves.

His last opportunity for redemption came at home against the Seattle Mariners on Tuesday. While Pivetta notched his third win of the season, he surrendered four earned runs and issued a season-high four walks over 5 1/3 innings. The Red Sox will take the win but the underwhelming outing against a mediocre lineup did little to convince anyone that Pivetta deserves to hang on to his rotation spot.

Despite his previous reluctance to the transition, Pivetta is at least saying all the right things in the wake of Cora's decision to move him into the bullpen, according to MassLive's Chris Cotillo.

“I just got moved to the bullpen so that’s where I belong and that’s where I am,” Pivetta said. “I’m going to show up there for my teammates out there and go out and do my job.

“I’m going to focus on helping the team achieve our goals,” Pivetta added. “I’m going to go out there and do my job and throw up zeroes and help this team win.”

That's a complete 180 from his attitude earlier this month. It's easy to envision a scenario where Pivetta resisted the change, moping around in the bullpen and displaying poor body language on the mound as his confidence quickly crumbled. His comments are an encouraging sign that he's ready to embrace his new role.

Whether or not he will thrive as a reliever remains to be seen. Most pitchers tend to improve in shorter stints where they aren't turning over a lineup multiple times and they often get a bump in velocity since they don't need to pace themselves the way starters do. Pivetta's track record suggests he might be an outlier.

Pivetta owns a 6.12 ERA, 1.577 WHIP and 2.31 K/BB ratio in 32 1/3 career innings as a reliever, compared to a 5.05 ERA, 1.392 WHIP and 2.68 K/BB ratio in 748 2/3 innings as a starter. Those relief outings have been sporadic and he's only made one regular season appearance out of the bullpen since joining the Red Sox in 2020, but the results have still been brutal when Pivetta has been tested as a reliever.

Pivetta is a habitual slow starter who takes an inning or two to settle in. He has produced a 5.69 ERA for his career in the first inning and a 4.70 ERA in the second inning, according to Baseball-Reference. That dips to a 3.52 ERA in the third before his ERA spikes to north of 5.00 as he pitches deeper into games.

Opposing hitters have historically been slightly less successful against Pivetta the second time through the lineup. Pivetta is allowing a .256 batting average and .771 OPS the first time through a lineup compared to a .253 AVG and .743 OPS the second time. He regresses when seeing hitters for a third time, as is common for many starters, allowing a .278 AVG and .863 OPS.

His resume suggests that Pivetta struggles early in games and falls apart when he lasts deep into an outing. That makes him a poor fit for a starting pitcher or for a reliever tasked with handling only an inning or two. What role can he provide value in then, beyond mop-up duty? Perhaps as a bulk-inning reliever piggybacking off a starter. His struggles early in games might not be exposed as much if he isn't beginning his outing against the opposing team's best bats at the top of the order, giving him time to settle in before the lineup turns over.

Pivetta needs to find a way to carve out a role in the bullpen if he intends to have a future with the Red Sox. Barring a rash of injuries, they no longer have room for him in the rotation. If he fails as a reliever, Pivetta is in danger of being designated for assignment. If he manages to survive the season, he would almost certainly be a non-tender candidate during the offseason. The Red Sox aren't going to pay for his inevitable bump in arbitration salary if they don't have a clear role for him.

A case could be made that Tanner Houck is the better option to move to the bullpen considering his previous success as a reliever, but he has more long-term upside than Pivetta. Corey Kluber has arguably been Boston's worst starter but the two-time Cy Young winner has earned a longer leash.

Regardless of the other options that Cora could have banished to the bullpen, Pivetta hasn't done nearly enough to warrant keeping his rotation spot. If he embraces this new challenge, Pivetta can cement his roster spot as a key reliever. If he can't succeed in the bullpen, Pivetta's future with the Red Sox is in jeopardy.