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Just Two Good Starts for Nate Eovaldi?

Nathan Eovaldi followed up his 2014 debut — three runs, six hits, eight strikeouts, no walks in seven innings — with another strong performance Sunday. He lost the game, but eight strikeouts against no walks in seven innings is impressive, even when set against three earned runs on six hits. Is he a must-acquire suddenly? After all, he’s averaging over 96 on his fastball.

I remain skeptical, but I’m always willing to admit I’m wrong, so it is without biases that I try to appraise Eovaldi’s 2014 arsenal.

First, let’s see how much has changed in the early going. Let’s look at pitching mix, whiffs and velocities in 2013 and 2014, sample size be damned. One thing worth mentioning now is that fastball velocity becomes stable after three outings, and the Marlins’ righty has now gone to the hill twice.

Pitch 13 Use 13 Velo 13 swSTR 14 Use 14 velo 14 Whiff
Fastball 70.0% 96.2 7.2% 66.5% 96.6 7.6%
Slider 18.6% 86.3 15.6% 26.9% 86.0 15.1%
Change 1.7% 87.5 5.9% 3.1% 88.0 16.7%
Curve 9.1% 77.5 5.3% 3.6% 75.6 14.3%

One thing we can say without pause is that he hasn’t discovered the missing change-up. The pitch still has the same shape and velocity, and he’s not using it much, even against lefties. The whiff rates on his curve and change are almost irrelevant even with the small sample size caveat — he’s thrown only 13 of those pitches combined, so two whiffs in 13 pitches can’t be called progress yet.

What stands out is how rarely he’s throwing the pitches other than his fastball and slider. We knew he was top-heavy, but let’s just take a look at the starting pitchers around baseball that have managed more than 400 innings over the last five years without a third non-fastball that they used more than seven percent of the time:

Name FB% FBv SL% CB% CH% SF% KN%
Bartolo Colon 86.4% 90.4 9.0% 4.5%
Aaron Cook 79.7% 89.4 9.7% 7.5% 0.4%
Justin Masterson 78.8% 91.9 19.9% 1.3%
A.J. Burnett 62.0% 93.0 32.2% 5.9%
Edwin Jackson 58.8% 94.0 29.4% 3.2% 6.4%
Ervin Santana 57.3% 92.3 37.2% 5.5%
R.A. Dickey 15.8% 83.6 0.0% 1.1% 83.1%

I’m not sure how much Eovaldi has in common with Bartolo Colon and Aaron Cook. R.A. Dickey and his knuckleball are in a class of his own.

But yes, Eovaldi deserves to be bucketed with Justin Masterson, A.J. Burnett, Edwin Jackson and Ervin Santana. Let’s throw in Bud Norris despite the fact that he used his bad change-up over 10% of the time somehow. Let’s look at that group over the last five years:

Name FB% FBv SL% ERA FIP K% BB% SwStr% GB% HR/FB
Nathan Eovaldi 67.4% 95.0 20.2% 3.76 3.83 16.6% 9.1% 8.0% 44.5% 7.2%
Ervin Santana 57.3% 92.3 37.2% 4.04 4.50 18.0% 7.4% 8.8% 41.3% 12.3%
Edwin Jackson 58.8% 94.0 29.4% 4.14 3.87 18.8% 7.8% 10.1% 46.0% 10.0%
Justin Masterson 78.8% 91.9 19.9% 4.15 3.77 18.9% 9.2% 8.3% 56.9% 9.6%
A.J. Burnett 62.0% 93.0 4.23 4.05 21.3% 9.3% 9.1% 49.9% 12.2%
Bud Norris 54.8% 92.7 33.7% 4.39 4.13 21.5% 9.3% 10.3% 40.2% 10.9%

So it’s not impossible for Eovaldi to contribute as a starter without a third pitch. But once you zoom out on the careers for this group, you might also notice that they aren’t top of the line pitchers over the course of the last five years. Let’s split that work above against lefties to see how they do against the other half:

Name Age Rng ERA FIP K% BB% GB% HR/FB
Edwin Jackson 25 – 30 3.72 3.79 18.7% 8.2% 46.4% 9.3%
A.J. Burnett 32 – 37 4.12 4.08 21.1% 10.4% 50.6% 11.3%
Ervin Santana 26 – 30 4.23 4.64 17.4% 8.5% 43.0% 12.9%
Bud Norris 24 – 29 4.74 4.65 20.4% 11.5% 39.7% 12.0%
Nathan Eovaldi 21 – 24 4.82 4.19 14.4% 10.7% 43.5% 6.1%
Justin Masterson 24 – 29 4.86 4.35 15.1% 9.6% 54.1% 10.8%

Very few of these guys have shown better work against lefties than righties. A.J. Burnett doesn’t have much of a split, and we know how — he has two versions of his knuckle curve, and that helps him have three weapons when it looks like he only has two. How about Edwin Jackson, the only other guy with a neutral platoon split? Well, E-Jax has thrown his change-up against lefties 11% of the time since 2009, and though the whiff rate hasn’t been good (11.7% career), the pitch does get grounders more than 50% of the time against lefties. That doesn’t seem to describe Nathan Eovaldi‘s likely approach.

So, as good as Eovaldi has been in our short season so far, it makes sense to compare him to the career numbers from Santana, Norris, and Masterson. It seems likely that Eovaldi will struggle against lefties and feature an ERA around four.

That might adjust your expectations, but there’s one last caveat, and it’s a doozy. Two numbers stand out on the two tables above: fastball velocity and age range. Eovaldi has shown more velocity than anyone on the list, and was younger than everyone on the list. These things are related, considering that fastball velocity begins dying from day one.

But we also know that every mile per hour of fastball velocity above 90 is worth about a fifth of a run in runs allowed per game, so Eovaldi’s almost two-tick advantage over the group is a big deal. Add in his home park, which should reduce the damage done by lefties when he’s pitching in Miami, and the fact that all of these pitchers have had good years where they made their repertoire work, and it absolutely becomes possible that Eovaldi has an ERA in the 3.6-3.75 range this year, with good strikeout numbers. That’s a pickup in any league.

How do we align these two aspects of Eovaldi into a coherent picture of the pitcher? By zooming out once more. In the long run, Eovaldi’s velocity will dip into the range provided here by his comps. If he doesn’t continue to show pinpoint command — his fastball ball rate in his two starts is 24% compared to his career 33% average — and doesn’t develop a third pitch, Eovaldi will surely have Norrissian seasons. But while he has good velocity and good command and a good home park, he has the upside to be Good Masterson and Good Santana.

Sometimes you just have to worry about later, later. Pick up Eovaldi if you can, and then later, be careful about using him against lefty-heavy lineups in hitter’s parks.