DUNEDIN, Fla. — The Phillies asked each pitcher to try something new this spring. Throw your change-up to lefthanders or rely on your slider more. For Nick Pivetta, it was simple: elevate your fastball.
The righthander averaged a 94.7 mph fastball last season but the majority of his targets were in the middle or lower half of the strike zone. The Phillies told him to watch Justin Verlander, who finds success by regularly throws his fastball high in the zone and with a ridiculous spin rate.
"A key point that they brought to me was how Verlander pitched in the playoffs," Pivetta said after allowing a run on Friday in his first two innings of spring training. "I think that's something I can learn from a lot of the time, how he did it."
A high fastball could often find danger if the pitch misses its spot. But the Phillies hope Pivetta's high fastball allows him to counter the swings of hitters who have increasingly lowered their swing paths as the game shifts to a heavy reliance on launch angles and uppercut swing techniques. The high fastball could also play up Pivetta's curveball and slider, which seemed to get better in the later stages of last season. The high fastball, Pivetta said, will be a good tool.
"We identified some pitch characteristics and Nick's fastball plays beautifully at various spots in the zone. One of them is up," manage Gabe Kapler said. "But if you think about the swing planes we're teaching now, trying to get the ball in the air, getting above those bats is not a terrible thing. Sometimes one of the things that keeps that ball above the bat is a ball that spins really fast. A high spin rate stays up in the zone like that."
Chris Young, the team's assistant pitching coach, will also be in charge of aligning the outfielders. Young used spray charts on Friday of the Toronto hitters and positioned the outfielders from the dugout before each at-bat.
"I can imagine how that might be a little bit unusual," Kapler said of having a pitching coach align outfielders. "We started with a skills matrix. What are the responsibilities that need to be covered in a major-league dugout? There's a big list of them. Then, who is best at tackling this responsibility. We got to the positioning of outfielders and he was the logical fit for us – partially because of his advance-scouting background, partially because he's really good at digging into data, and he's a big target. It doesn't have to be an outfield guy to position outfielders. It doesn't take the outfield experience to say, 'Oh, you should be standing on the X.' We're thinking about that a bit unconventionally."