Nathan Eovaldi is making the transition from thrower to pitcher, and the results are striking. In 37-and-a-third innings over six April starts the 24-year-old Miami Marlins right-hander punched out 35 batters and allowed just five walks. His ERA was a sparkling 2.58.
Eovaldi is thriving on simplicity. Two out of three pitches he’s thrown this year have been fastballs averaging 96 mph. He’s consistently attacking the bottom half of the zone, resulting in a 55.5% ground-ball rate. According to bench coach Rob Leary, that’s by design.
“He’s getting a lot of [ground balls] on his fastball,” said Leary. “We’re not asking him to strike anyone out. We’re not asking any of our pitchers to strike anyone out. The more efficient they are, the longer they can go. We saw that with Henderson Alvarez recently when he threw a 90-pitch complete game. We want our pitchers to get outs with quality pitches, and the sooner the better. Balls down in the zone get put into play, typically on the ground.”
Pitchers with high ground-ball rates are often assumed to throw a two-seam fastball. Eovaldi doesn’t. With semantics in mind, even when his fastball sinks, it’s not a sinker.
“I don’t throw a two-seam,” explained Eovaldi. “I throw a four-seam and grip the ball the same every time. I’m just trying to throw good-quality low strikes and a lot more of my pitches have been down by the knees this year. I don’t really pay much attention to the movement I might be getting. I just throw to where the glove is.”
“He throws a four-seam that’s real heavy,” explained catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia. “Most guys throw the ball and you just catch it. Nate’s ball has that little extra oomph. He can throw it down in the zone and he can also throw it up here [at the letters] where it looks good and you swing, but it’s hard to square up because it’s 98.”
Leary feels Eovaldi is making the transition from thrower to pitcher, but acknowledges that the flame-throwing youngster is still a work in progress. Is he more than a thrower?
“Absolutely,” responded Leary. “He obviously possesses a real big arm, and when you have that type of fastball people are going to say ‘He’s a thrower’ or ‘He’s just a power guy.’ But I don’t consider him that. He just needs to continue to refine his pitches. He has the makings of three good off-speed pitches, it’s just a matter of consistency.
“He uses the slider more than his curveball, but at any time, or any night, they’re both very good pitches. They’re out pitches. Again, it’s just a matter of consistency. Between last year and this year we’ve seen him improve, and we want to continue to see good progress.”
Saltalamacchia echoed Leary.
“He’s obviously got a really good fastball, so once he gets his secondary stuff down he’s going to be one of the top pitchers in the game,” said Saltalamacchia. “He’d be right up there with Jose Fernandez right now if he didn’t struggle with his secondary a little bit. But he’s working on it. His slider is his second-best pitch and his curveball is becoming a good pitch. His changeup is getting better.”
Eovaldi’s understanding of how to pitch is clearly getting better. He’s still more about power than finesse, and probably always will be, but he’s no longer just a thrower. His emergence as a quality starter bears that out, as does his simple-yet-maturing approach.
“It’s not necessarily about velocity,” said Eovaldi. “If you can locate pitches you’re going to be good, no matter how hard you’re throwing. I’ve been able to throw a lot more quality strikes and repeat the good arm slot on my slider more consistently. How much I throw my curveball depends on the hitter, the situation, the count, and whether they’re on my fastball or not. It’s about knowing strengths and weaknesses, and mixing pitches. But everything is going to work off my fastball.”
At the end of the 2009 season I interviewed Josh Reddick for a now-defunct print publication. He was 27 games into his big-league career, having debuted that summer with the Red Sox. We covered several topics, from rookie hazing to rumors he would be traded in the offseason.
Reddick wasn’t traded that winter, but he was two years later, to Oakland. The A’s are at Fenway Park this weekend, so I decided it might be fun to revisit parts of our old conversation.
One of the first things I asked about was the mohawk he shaved off when he got called up from the minor leagues. His response was similar to what it was four-and-a-half years ago.
“I felt like it wouldn’t be a good first impression to make on a bunch of guys I didn’t know very well,” said Reddick. “A 22-year-old rookie making his debut in a mohawk probably wouldn’t look too good.”
The Oakland outfielder is colorful, and prone to changing his look from time to time, so I asked if he’d be comfortable wearing one now. He didn’t sound inclined. Not that he’s especially pleased with his current coif.
“My hair has pretty much been the same since then,” said Reddick. “I’ve gone with the longer hair look, except for now. The stylist screwed up and took too much off. But I haven’t done anything crazy with my hair like mohawk it, spike it or blond it. The only crazy thing I’ve really done here is the beard thing.”
The beard thing. Reddick explained it this way.
“Coco [Crisp] and I started a little one-on-one challenge for who could grow the best facial hair,” said Reddick, who in 2009 told me he’d ‘always been a facial hair guy.’ “This was coming into the spring of 2013. I dominated him. Coco couldn’t grow it nearly as well as I could. I decided to keep it for awhile, and then [WWE wrestler Daniel Bryan] challenged me to a beard-off. Everybody knows how big of a wrestling fan I am, so of course I jumped right on that. Later, he shaved mine off, which was fun. He’s the champion now, and his big push came right after our beard-off, so I’ll have to take credit for that.”
Is there anyone in the Oakland clubhouse who could compete with him in a beard-off?
“The only guy who seems like he could come close is [Derek] Norris,” opined Reddick. “He’s got a pretty good one right now. [Sean] Doolittle has had a pretty good one, but he keeps his pretty thinned. Mine was thick and long.”
Reddick admits he would have fit in well with last year’s well-bearded Red Sox team. It could have happened were it not for the December 2011 deal that sent him west. Don’t blame Theo Epstein.
“I got traded the year after Theo left for Chicago,” explained Reddick. “It was Ben Cherington’s first year. I actually saw Theo in spring training of 2012 and he said, ‘Yeah, man, I told you I wasn’t going to trade you. Ben did and he’s got his own willpower.’ So yeah, Theo held out his end of the bargain. He didn’t trade me.”
I wasn’t surprised to learn Mike Ekstrom is playing in Italy and blogging about the experience. Back when I authored the Minor Issues column at Baseball Prospectus, Ekstom was featured twice. On one occasion we discussed travel. In the other he weighed in on Dirk Hayhurst‘s “Bullpen Gospels.”
Ekstrom had a fairly nondescript career stateside. He pitched for the Padres, Rays and Rockies, but most of his time was spent in the minors. His big-league resume consists of 51 relief outings from 2008-2012. Last year he turned 30 and logged a 5.14 ERA between a pair of Triple-A stops. The writing was on the wall.
“I didn’t have many good options back in the US,” Ekstrom told me recently. “I wasn’t really interested in indie ball or Mexico, so I thought of Italy. Europe had been on my radar for a few years as a place to travel and play before moving on. My team takes care of all my expenses, gives me a car, and pays a decent salary. I’ll make 16-20 starts and get to experience life in Europe for the summer. It’s a different atmosphere, but a fun place to play and live.
“I’ve been fortunate to see baseball in some unique places,” continued Ekstrom. “I’ve played in traditional markets like Australia and Asia, but I’ve also seen baseball in less-conventional places like Iceland, Vietnam, and now Italy. Playing before raucous crowds in Taiwan is exciting, but holding a baseball clinic in Iceland or watching Japanese businessmen and Vietnamese teenagers play a sandlot game in Hanoi are moments I really enjoy and like sharing.”
Sharing his experiences is something Ekstrom does well. It may not be fair to say he’s a better writer than pitcher, but he’s moving in that direction.
“I created Baseball Round the World as a way to learn some relative skills for when I need a real job,” explained Ekstrom. “Maybe that’s web design, writing or marketing. It’s also a way to share my experiences and keep in touch with friends and family back home. I’ve never been a huge fan of player blogs – they usually seem self-serving and lame – but it’s been a fun project. Plus, it’ll be nice to have something on my resume other than ‘fringe-average professional baseball pitcher.’
Ekstrom isn’t the only player – fringe-average or otherwise – whose stories will populate the blog going forward.
“I plan to expand the website and add interviews from old teammates and friends who’ve played overseas,” explained Ekstrom. “I think it’ll be really interesting to have a site that paints a picture of the wide variety of professional leagues and youth programs around the globe. When I’m done playing I’d like to work in international baseball in some capacity. So far I have interviews to post from guys who’ve played in Japan, Australia, the Netherlands, Vietnam, Austria, Germany, and New Zealand. I’ll start rolling out interviews next week and expand from there.”
Here are two examples of Ekstrom’s writing. The first has yet to be published. The second is excerpted from an earlier entry in his blog.
Ekstrom: “Recently, I’ve heard a lot about John Grisham’s book Playing for Pizza – a novel about an American football player, playing in Italy. I think my Italian experience could be more accurately described as Playing for Parmesan & Prosciutto. It seems that in life and in baseball, everything in Italy revolves around food. Just last week, we had a 90-minute practice followed by a three-hour meat-fest of a team barbecue. Last night, our practice was cut short by some light showers – we don’t have a tarp, it’s great! — but the team dinner raged well past midnight. Even during our games, seeing a reliever pounding a piadina – the local flatbread, prosciutto and cheese sandwich – in the fifth inning isn’t out of place. Don’t get me wrong, despite our complete lack of speed on the base paths, I think it’s fantastic. This love of food isn’t specific to my team in Rimini either, Italian league teams largely stick to a station-to-station approach on offense. As an import player, initially I had some concerns about finding the right food here. On the contrary, the food has been a highlight and it’s unexpectedly helped me manage the running game while I’m pitching.
“One difference in the games is that players – especially on the other team — are really passionate and vocal about each and every play. Perhaps it’s because we only play two games a week, but it really felt like a college atmosphere with the entire dugout hanging on each pitch. It’s quite a difference, and definitely less peaceful than the standard apathetic and silent Triple-A dugout. A small part of me felt bad for the umpire – except he was brutal — because regardless of him calling a strike or ball, one team was gonna be yelling at him. Capra means “goat” in Italian, and that’s gonna be my go-to word when yelling at the umpires.”
On at least one occasion, Bill King used far stronger language when expressing his opinion to an official. Notable is the fact he was broadcasting the game.
A legendary broadcaster in the Bay Area, King was the voice of the Oakland A’s from 1981-2005. He also called games for the football Raiders, from 1966-1992, and the basketball Warriors, from 1962-1983. His life and career are chronicled in “Holy Toledo: Lessons From Bill King, Renaissance Man of the Mic,” which was published last year. The book’s author is a legend of his own. Ken Korach worked alongside King and is now in his 19th season in the A’s radio booth.
In Korach’s words, King “had a thing for authority figures which manifested itself in his feelings for umpires and officials. He wore his emotions on his sleeve and there was no middle ground.”
I asked Korach for examples of King’s emotional diatribes. He shared two, both of which are told in more detail in his book.
Korach: “According to my boss, Ken Pries – he still works for the A’s – several times he got a call from Major League Baseball expressing concern about something Bill allegedly said on the air about umpires. One time Ken was called down to the umpire’s dressing room at the Coliseum because the crew chief felt Bill had crossed the line, that it had been a personal attack. Ken checked the tape and told him, ‘Listen, I think Bill got emotional, but I don’t think he crossed the line or got personal.’ He gave the crew chief the tape and said, ‘If you have a problem, let me know.’ He never heard back.
“The most-infamous Bill King story was from December 1968. The Warriors were playing the Supersonics, in Seattle. It was a very competitive game with a lot of fouls. Late in the game a call went against the Warriors. Bill was working courtside and wearing an old harness mic, which was attached to his chest. Bill was outraged by a call made by Ed Rush – maybe the most famous NBA official ever – and ripped off his harness mic. He screamed at Rush, ‘You mother______!’ The engineer didn’t get his signal to cut the crowd mic, so those words went out over the air, over 50,000 watts in Northern California.
“A few years later, in December, the Warriors were in San Diego playing the Clippers. Ed Rush got a Mother’s Day card and wrote on it, ‘Happy Mother’s Day, Ed.’ and gave it to Bill before the game. From that point on, every year, Ed and Bill would celebrate Mother’s Day, in December, in honor of what happened that one day in Seattle.”