Hockey is the No. 1 sport for many Canadian kids.
It wasn’t for Nick Pivetta.
In the land of skates and pucks, he was always a baseball kid.
As a youngster growing up on Canada’s West Coast, Pivetta made sure to be in front of the television at 4 p.m. most days. The Toronto Blue Jays, playing three times zones away, were must-see TV for him — especially if his favorite player was on the mound.
“Roy Halladay was my idol,” said Pivetta, himself a big right-hander, just like Halladay. “I grew up watching him. When I got home from school they’d be starting their games and I’d watch all of them.”
Pivetta, who turns 24 next month, is one of the Phillies' top pitching prospects. He and a handful of the team’s most advanced minor-leaguers are in town this week to take part in the club’s annual wintertime seminar designed to prepare top prospects for some of the behind-the-scene realities of big-league life.
On Wednesday, the players were assigned lockers in the Phillies' clubhouse for a media availability session. When it was pointed out to Pivetta that his locker was just a couple away from the one formerly occupied by Jonathan Papelbon, the man he was traded for two summers ago, he responded with some intel of his own.
“I heard Roy used to sit here,” he said.
Lo and behold, he was right.
In a stroke of pure coincidence, Pivetta’s nameplate was fastened above the locker that Halladay called home during the four seasons he spent with the Phillies after his trade from Toronto in December 2009.
Pivetta was thrilled by this little bit of serendipity.
“It’s surreal,” he said.
Pivetta was originally selected by the Washington Nationals in the fourth round of the 2013 draft. He was in the middle of his second full season in the Nats’ system when he was traded to the Phillies for Papelbon. Pivetta struggled in seven starts at Double A Reading after the July 2015 trade but rebounded nicely in 2016. He went 11-6 with a 3.41 ERA in 22 starts at Reading before jumping to Triple A and registering a 2.55 ERA in his final five starts of the season. His walk rate went from 4.0 per nine innings in 2015 to 3.1 in 2016.
His strong season and the potential for more earned him a spot on the 40-man roster.
Being traded can be jarring to a young minor-leaguer and it was to Pivetta. But he has come to love the move and the opportunity he has in the Phillies organization.
“I believe the trade changed me for the better, 100 percent,” he said. “It’s an experience I really needed to go through as a human being. I needed to step out of my comfort zone. I was comfortable with the Nationals. When I came here I really didn’t know too many people and stepping out of that comfort zone myself and connecting with all these new players and meeting a new coaching staff changed me in all the right ways. It made me grow up. I became more of a man and more of an adult in how to approach life.”
Joe Jordan, the Phillies’ director of player development, saw the new maturity in Pivetta last season.
“In 2016 he showed us the potential to be a really good major-league pitcher,” Jordan said. “He was a little excitable after the trade in 2015, but he came back calm and confident last year. His stuff is legit — 93 to 96 (mph) with life on the fastball, good breaking ball and good feel for the changeup.”
Pivetta, who stands 6-5 and weighs 220 pounds, likes to throw a two-seam fastball or sinker. He learned just how effective that pitch can be by watching Halladay on TV as a kid.
“I loved watching how Roy competed, how he was a true professional, how he did everything right,” Pivetta said. “I throw a two-seamer and I used to love to watch how he could command that pitch on both sides of the plate and how he really cut down on his walks. He didn’t walk anybody. I’ve struggled with my walks, but I want to become that pitcher. I want to succeed like he did.”
The Phillies have assembled some decent starting pitching depth. On paper, the big-league rotation figures to consist of Jeremy Hellickson, Jerad Eickhoff, Clay Buchholz, Vince Velasquez and either Aaron Nola or Zach Eflin, depending on health. Behind this group is Jake Thompson, Adam Morgan, Alec Asher, Ben Lively, Mark Appel, Ricardo Pinto and Pivetta. It’s unclear how all the starting slots will be filled in the upper levels of the system — that will shake out in Clearwater in March — but it seems that Pivetta has a good shot to return to Triple A and build on what he did there over the final month of the 2016 season.
Pivetta is eager to get to Clearwater for his first big-league spring training camp. He will leave the team in early March to join Team Canada for the World Baseball Classic. A native of Victoria, British Columbia and a veteran of Canada’s international junior teams, he is expected to hold down a spot in the team’s starting rotation.
“It’ll be my first time with the senior team,” Pivetta said with an eager smile. “I’m so excited to be able to represent my country and play for Team Canada.”