While there’s a chance you have your own personal anecdotes, most of us are familiar with Nathan Eovaldi for one thing: He’s a starting pitcher who throws super hard. I guess that’s two things. But so far this year, he’s got baseball’s second-fastest average fastball among starting pitchers, behind only Yordano Ventura. Eovaldi has been doing this since he first reached the majors, and he’s one of those live arms on the Marlins that leads people to think the staff has enormous upside. There’s all kinds of sex appeal in a starter who can throw 98 mph.
Most people equate good velocity with good stuff. And I think good velocity leads to one of two assumptions . Either the guy is an unhittable ace, or he’s tough to hit but wild. Basically, there’s the thought that good velocity means a low contact rate, and then it’s just a matter of how many strikes get thrown. But this year, Eovaldi’s been doing something different to the extreme — pitching like a guy with a very different profile. Nathan Eovaldi has been blending Ventura’s fastball with Bartolo Colon‘s approach.
Or any hard-throwing pitcher’s fastball with any strike-throwing pitcher’s approach. I almost cited Cliff Lee, but Lee’s on a level of his own. Nevertheless, let’s consider some Eovaldi rankings. At this writing, there are 114 qualified pitchers in the majors.
First-pitch strike rate: Eighth
Zone rate: First
Contact rate: 104th
Better than seven out of every 10 pitches have been strikes. More than a quarter of Eovaldi’s pitches have been thrown in 0-and-2, in 1-and-2 or in 2-and-2 counts. It would be almost blasphemous to suggest Eovaldi has Lee’s command — and he doesn’t have Lee’s command — but he’s running a Lee-esque strike rate and walk rate with a far livelier arm. Eovaldi isn’t pitching like a guy with his arm is supposed to pitch.
If Eovaldi’s zone rate were to hold up, it would be the highest qualified zone rate in the whole PITCHf/x era, by nearly two percentage points. In Eovaldi’s past three starts, he’s posted three of his four highest career zone rates. He’s attacking, almost without mercy, and one notices he has 23 strikeouts and two unintentional walks. He’s like Henderson Alvarez, plus an adjustment.
Actually, let’s talk about that real quick. In March, a National League pitcher noted Alvarez has the potential to be unhittable, if he made a tweak somewhere in his skillset. If someone showed him, say, a better changeup grip, the sky could be the limit. The idea is Alvarez throws so hard he gets a heck of a head start on reaching a high ceiling. Eovaldi’s no different in that respect, and while the difference for Eovaldi hasn’t been developing a shutdown changeup, he’s boosted his aggressiveness into the stratosphere and he’s running a FIP just above 2.00.
You wonder if this is a team-wide emphasis. The Marlins’ starting rotation leads baseball in zone rate, and Eovaldi is only a part of that. Given the arms, it makes sense. You don’t need to nibble when you’re comfortable in the mid-90s, and there are worse things than teaching young pitchers to be a bit more economical. But it’s not like Eovaldi is sacrificing all his strikeouts by pounding the zone, because he’s just constantly pitching ahead. Find enough two-strike counts and strikeouts will accumulate.
For Eovaldi, there have always been questions about his secondary stuff. As a result, he’s always leaned pretty heavily on his fastball, and he’s still done that in 2014. But a key to his success could very well be tightening things up. We’ll look at four images. First, we’ll look at Eovaldi’s fastball locations before this year, and this year.
In 2014, you don’t see many fastballs up, and you don’t see many fastballs down. You see a cluster of fastballs right in the zone, with some lateral drift. Because of the sample sizes, this isn’t quite evident, but driving Eovaldi’s zone-rate increase is a fastball zone-rate increase. He’s thrown far more fastballs for strikes. With the secondary stuff, the adjustment has been more like throwing fewer secondary pitches for obvious balls. Here’s where I think we see something kind of dramatic, and here’s why I think Eovaldi might really have taken a step forward:
What hasn’t changed, meaningfully, is Eovaldi’s zone rate with offspeed stuff. But look at those distributions. Even eyeballing them, there’s basically nothing left and nothing up this season. There’s also basically nothing in the dirt. Eovaldi hasn’t been flying open, and he’s been mostly able to stay down-and-away against righties and down-and-in against lefties. He likes to throw his slider. Usually you’re taught not to believe in fastball-slider righties facing lefties, but the down-and-in slider is a legitimate weapon if you can control it — and Eovaldi’s been controlling it. It would appear he’s just more consistent with his secondary pitches, allowing him to be more aggressive and successful with his primary pitch. And Nathan Eovaldi — with something other than just fastball velocity — is a terror to imagine.
How does a pitcher strike out 22% of batters with one of the league’s highest contact rates? Interestingly, Eovaldi leads baseball in foul-ball rate. Foul balls aren’t the same as swings and misses, but they also aren’t the same as balls in play. They basically are swings and misses until you have two strikes. Presuming the foul rate regresses, the question will be in which direction. Will that poor contact turn into good contact or no contact? The answer will determine the likely direction of Eovaldi’s strikeout rate, but as long as he’s throwing this many strikes, the strikeouts will never disappear completely.
Eovaldi’s teammates with the guy who has baseball’s highest strike rate. To date, just about three of every four Kevin Slowey pitches has been a strike. That’s always been Slowey’s profile, but he’s also struggled to find consistent success because he’s so hittable within the zone. Eovaldi isn’t too far from Slowey’s strike rate, and then he blends that with one of baseball’s better fastballs, off of which he’s able to throw what would appear to be improved secondary pitches. It’s way too soon to declare Eovaldi is turning into an ace. It isn’t way too soon to think Eovaldi might be getting closer to his God-given ceiling. Some pitchers maximize the times they’re ahead in the count. Nathan Eovaldi simply always stays ahead in the count.
Print This Post