Nathan Eovaldi Is a Unicorn

From everything I’ve read, and from everyone I’ve talked to, just about every single baseball team is interested in free-agent Nathan Eovaldi. Very good teams are interested in Eovaldi. Very mediocre teams are interested in Eovaldi. Very bad teams are interested in Eovaldi. There are degrees of interest, sure, and before too long, certain would-be suitors are going to be removed from the hunt. As always, it’ll come down to a limited pool of finalists. But, why is Eovaldi so popular? I guess you don’t have to think back very far.

Eovaldi pitched six times for the Red Sox in the playoffs. He started, he relieved, and one time he relieved with a starter’s workload. Eovaldi wound up getting tagged with the loss in that game, but I want to quickly revisit the final out Eovaldi recorded. With two down in the bottom of the 17th inning of Game 3 of the World Series, Eovaldi struck out Justin Turner on three pitches. They were his 88th, 89th, and 90th pitches of the evening. He had already pitched in Game 1 and Game 2.

The first pitch to Turner:

Fastball, 99. The second pitch to Turner:

Fastball, 98. The third pitch to Turner:

Cutter, 96. Turner is one of the better all-around hitters in the game today, and while I’ll grant that fatigue can be a factor when you’re playing what’s effectively a nighttime doubleheader, Eovaldi would’ve been tired, too, and he made Turner look like you or me. A three-pitch strikeout of anyone is impressive. A three-pitch strikeout of Justin Turner is doubly so.

Even though Eovaldi lost a few minutes later when he gave up a home run to Max Muncy, his effort was still regarded as heroic. The Red Sox couldn’t say enough about how Eovaldi had risen to the occasion. That’s one point in his favor, here — Eovaldi is considered to have an extremely strong work ethic. He wants to win, and he wants to win badly. Then there’s the fact that he still hasn’t turned 29. That’s another thing that makes him widely appealing. And of course, although I’ve kind of buried the lede, Eovaldi throws incredibly hard. We’re all suckers for eye-popping velocity readings. Sometimes Eovaldi can brush against triple digits. That’s a third selling point.

But now I want you to go back and watch those three clips again. If you don’t want to take the 15 seconds, I’ll just spoil the takeaway — all three pitches were located very well. Fastball, outer black. Fastball, up. Cutter, off the plate away. Eovaldi didn’t fluke his way into a three-pitch strikeout. He executed his way into a three-pitch strikeout. And although he doesn’t miss quite as many bats as you might expect of someone with his radar-gun readings, it’s the combination of velocity and strikes that really sets Eovaldi apart.

I saw a rumor this morning that some teams have expressed interest in signing Eovaldi as a closer. But it seems he wants to start. Mostly, he’s been a starter. He just started 21 games in the regular season, and he had one of the highest average fastball velocities in either league. He also threw better than 69% of his pitches for strikes. Eovaldi is constantly on the attack, and his new cutter introduced a different wrinkle. Eovaldi developed into the best pitcher he’s ever been.

I looked at every starter from 2018 who threw at least 50 innings. By average fastball velocity, Eovaldi wound up 2.2 standard deviations higher than the mean. That means he had a z-score of 2.2. And then, by strike rate, Eovaldi wound up 2.3 standard deviations higher than the mean. Miles Mikolas might throw strikes like Eovaldi, but he doesn’t throw as hard. Tyler Glasnow might throw as hard as Eovaldi, but he doesn’t throw as many strikes.

Thanks to Baseball Info Solutions, it’s possible to track this kind of information all the way back to 2002. So I looked at all individual pitcher-seasons with at least 50 innings as a starter. Here’s a table of the highest strike-rate z-scores, given a velocity z-score of at least 2.0:

Most Strikes, Given Velocity
Pitcher Year Velocity, Z Strike%, Z
Nathan Eovaldi 2018 2.18 2.30
Danny Salazar 2013 2.16 2.04
Noah Syndergaard 2016 2.68 1.83
Luis Severino 2017 2.40 1.35
Luis Severino 2018 2.35 1.30
Matt Harvey 2013 2.00 1.23
Stephen Strasburg 2010 2.53 1.15
Randy Johnson 2002 2.01 1.13
James Paxton 2016 2.20 1.08
Noah Syndergaard 2018 2.26 0.84
2002 – 2018, minimum 50 innings as a starter.

Similarly, here’s a table of the highest velocity z-scores, given a strike-rate z-score of at least 2.0:

Best Velocity, Given Strikes
Pitcher Year Velocity, Z Strike%, Z
Nathan Eovaldi 2018 2.18 2.30
Danny Salazar 2013 2.16 2.04
Jason Schmidt 2003 1.95 2.11
Roy Oswalt 2002 1.87 2.49
Jacob deGrom 2018 1.65 2.01
Randy Johnson 2004 1.57 2.33
Curt Schilling 2002 1.53 3.05
CC Sabathia 2006 1.45 2.21
Ben Sheets 2004 1.43 2.01
Justin Verlander 2018 1.26 2.04
2002 – 2018, minimum 50 innings as a starter.

This whole spreadsheet I’m looking at includes more than 3,000 individual pitcher-seasons over the past 17 years. There are only two seasons in which a starter was at least two standard deviations better than the average in both fastball velocity and strike rate: 2013 Danny Salazar, and 2018 Nathan Eovaldi. Salazar threw just 52 major-league innings that year, and the next season his fastball lost a mile and a half. Then, later on, there were injuries. Eovaldi has an established track record of throwing super hard. He also has a track record of throwing strikes, albeit not at the 2018 level. Presumably, the cutter was a big part of that improvement. Eovaldi is healthy, and he’s at his absolute best.

This is an article that calls for a scatter plot, so here are those 3,000+ individual pitcher-seasons, expressed in their two z-scores. Eovaldi’s 2018 data point is highlighted in yellow. (Most of those funny-looking points off to the left are knuckleballers and Jamie Moyer.)

It should go without saying that velocity and strikes aren’t everything. You still have to judge a pitcher by his overall body of work, and velocity and strikes don’t tell you that much about, say, missing bats. Eovaldi has never run an extraordinary strikeout rate. He’s coming off an ERA- of 89, an FIP- of 87, and an xFIP- of 87. But those numbers are good, if short of great, and teams love strike-throwers. Managers love strike-throwers. In some ways, Eovaldi is a lot like Tyler Chatwood, and in some ways, Eovaldi is the opposite of Tyler Chatwood. He throws harder than almost any starter alive, and he commands the baseball. It’s an appealing skillset, hinting at further upside, and an atypical one. No one’s had a season quite like Eovaldi’s 2018.

Chatwood’s is a relevant name to bring up. Last offseason, Chatwood received a lot of analytical hype, and then he signed with the Cubs for three years and $38 million. Chatwood was a guy with good stuff going into his age-28 season. That season, of course, was a nightmare, and he wound up getting bumped from the rotation. It hasn’t gone very well. But while Chatwood could only dream of throwing strikes like Eovaldi has, both pitchers have had two Tommy John surgeries. No matter what Eovaldi’s doctor says about the health of his elbow, that’s certain to factor into forthcoming contract negotiations.

Because of the health history, it’s awful difficult to see Eovaldi getting several years guaranteed on the market. The widespread demand will push the price up, but the way I see it, Eovaldi might also settle for three years, getting about $54 – 60 million. And perhaps the winning bidder will get there by including a fourth-year vesting option for a similar salary, that vests so long as Eovaldi doesn’t finish 2021 on the DL with an elbow injury. We’ve seen some of that language before, and it’s a sensible way for teams to protect themselves while dangling the potential for bigger money. The successful double-TJ cases are few and far between. Eovaldi won’t be able to separate himself from his past.

But he has been able to separate himself from other pitchers. The health history is a legitimate concern, but Nathan Eovaldi was good to go in the most recent year. He threw as hard as he ever has, and in part thanks to an exciting new cutter, he filled up the zone with quality strikes. Starters seldom come with such good stuff, and so many strikes. That’s why Eovaldi is getting so much attention, and that’s why Eovaldi is going to get paid.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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abelincoln
Member
abelincoln

I would buy, but buy low on Eovaldi. I feel he’s best as a high leverage, long RP ala Hader, but is he effective enough to fulfill that role for a very particular team? A ligament can be fixed, and thus be in even better shape than a pitcher with no TJ, but the root of those TJs doesn’t dramatically change, especially when age and muscle memory set in. I think(?) Salazar is throwing in AZ.

tb.25
Member
tb.25

“buy low on Eovaldi.”

You can’t buy low the offseason after his best season to date…

abelincoln
Member
abelincoln

You actually can, especially if his season is an outlier. Buying low, as I intended, but didn’t specify, would mean buying slightly below perceived market value. If you are a team that is competitive, but offers a chance to win, you can buy low, like the Red Sox. You can also buy low if you feel he exceeded the amount of high leverage innings that would deem his arm fragile for a big contract.

Planet Dust
Member
Member
Planet Dust

The problem you’re going to encounter has to do with all the other teams who are willing to buy high, or at least not low.

abelincoln
Member
abelincoln

And those that buy high are fools. Who is more valuable? Moustakas or Eovaldi?

abelincoln
Member
abelincoln

This was sarcasm based on market, but who, on average, generates more WAR per mill?

abelincoln
Member
abelincoln

Sometimes it’s not even about the teams willing to buy high, but simply where the player would rather play at that fits a middle ground between the two. And for some teams, that is buying low, depending on how they gauged the market and their needs. I don’t know what wisdom is though, just cherry picking stats that mean nothing without arguing their significance.

Jetsy Extrano
Member
Jetsy Extrano

“You can also buy low if you feel he exceeded the amount of high leverage innings that would deem his arm fragile for a big contract.”

That’s “offer low”. “Buy low” means a different thing.

abelincoln
Member
abelincoln

Depends on which perspective you’re operating from. Ironically, you can “offer low” and “buy low” if you are the Red Sox in this particular case.

abelincoln
Member
abelincoln

Brandon Morrow? Who is that? A person with one less TJ orrrr? My memory is that of a MLB team.

Mark Davidson
Member

Emancipace yourself, Abe. You’re getting trigger happy.

Mark Davidson
Member

Honestly, abe, what happened to honesty?

abelincoln
Member
abelincoln

I’m just having fun with an internet chat. Regardless, the longevity of two time TJ pitchers is not great. If a team offers a substantial contract to Eovaldi to start based on a great postseason then they are overpaying for a 3 starter. If they offer a similar contract to relieve, they are overpaying for an unproven closer, or a reliever with a small sample size regarding high leverage innings. I only see overpay and overpay for a guy with 2 TJs. That’s my honest opinion. I wouldn’t pull the trigger on him. If teams can get a Paxton type for a hodgepodge of prospects, then Eovaldi’s market is compromised and justly so.

Alby
Member
Member
Alby

Then why not say that in the first place instead of misusing a term that means something different from what you think it means?

abelincoln
Member
abelincoln

I buy low on this comment. Your comment may mean more to others than simply a thumbs up, which I’m not willing to offer, even if the market dictates you deserve one.