The Red Sox made two big deals at the trade deadline, acquiring both Nathan Eovaldi and Ian Kinsler. The latter hasn’t done much of anything at the plate since coming to Boston, but his upgrade in the field has helped mask those struggles. Eovaldi, meanwhile, has been a really interesting case. He was seen as an impact addition who was going to help the rotation before eventually transitioning to the bullpen to play a big role in October. That is still the expectation, but his perception in the rotation has already changed dramatically in his short time with the team. In his first couple of starts with the Red Sox, Eovaldi looked legitimately great and it seemed Dave Dombrowski had found a massive upgrade for his rotation. Since then, however, things have taken a sharp step in the wrong direction, and Eovaldi has been more negative than positive in his latest starts.
The differences for Eovaldi have been really stark, though it’s unfair to say he was only good for those two starts to start his Red Sox career. Though they were in another uniform, the righty had been pitching extremely well leading up to that trade as well. There was one disastrous start mixed in, but from June 26 through August 4 — that brilliant outing against the Yankees — Eovaldi pitched to a 2.32 ERA over seven starts with 41 strikeouts in 42 2⁄3 innings. Those seven starts included four in which he allowed no runs and only two in which he allowed more than one run. Since then, things have been completely different. He has made four starts in this latest stretch spanning 17 innings (just over four innings per start), and he has a 7.41 ERA with 12 strikeouts. Opponents are teeing off on him. Both he and the Red Sox need to figure out what is going on.
Watching him pitch, it’s easy to fall back on the bad luck train, and it’s part of it. For a couple of starts now, it seems like every ball in play is finding holes against Eovaldi and every bloop is being hit to the perfect location to allow a single. The numbers support this, too, as he has allowed a batting average on balls in play of .452 over this four-start stretch. For comparison, he allowed a .264 BABIP during the strong stretch before this. That .452 mark is wholly unsustainable and even by doing nothing Eovaldi should get a little better. The issue, of course, is that a little better would still be pretty bad. They need to do more than a little better.
As much as there have been weak batted balls that have found holes — according to Fangraphs the rate at which he’s allowed soft, medium and hard contact has remained virtually unchanged between these two stretches — Eovaldi deserves some blame for it. Ultimately, it comes down to how often these balls are being put into play. During that big stretch he was striking out a little more than a quarter of the batters he faced. In his last four starts, his strikeout rate has fallen all the way down to 13 percent. The difference has been particularly frustrating with two strikes, as his K% has fallen from 44 percent to 26 percent between these two stretches. To put it simply, if you can’t put away batters and allow balls in play, you open yourself up to the kind luck that has seemingly plagued Eovaldi.
Ultimately, it’s pretty simple as far as what the righty has to do to turn things around. He needs to miss more bats, and to do that he needs to get hitters to swing at pitches out of the zone. Below, you will see every three-start stretch from Eovaldi this season, showing both the rate at which he’s induced swings on offerings out of the zone as well as how often he has induced swinging strikes. The correlation could not be more clear.
While that graph is telling, it’s not exactly an eye-opening revelation. Hitters struggle to make contact on pitches out of the zone. That’s...fairly obvious. The key is how Eovaldi can get back to getting those swings on bad pitches. A lot has been discussed about how the righty’s new cut fastball has transformed his game, and it’s absolutely true. That has been a dominant pitch for him this year and when he was rolling it was the biggest reason. It’s clear that Eovaldi has noticed this, and he’s using it more and more as the year goes on. Over this four-game stretch, it’s become his most-used pitch at 44 percent, a seven percentage-point increase from that strong stretch in the middle of the year.
Unfortunately for him, it seems hitters have adjusted to the offering and it is no longer the same weapon it once was. It has actually started moving more in this bad stretch, but the predictability is working against him. After inducing whiffs about 12 percent of the time in the middle of the year, Eovaldi’s cutter is inducing a whiff just three percent of the time during this latest four-start stretch. Instead, batters are letting it go for a ball more often (up from 22 percent to 30 percent), putting it in play a bit more (22 percent to 25 percent) and fouling it a bit more (24 percent to 27 percent).
The fix seems to be to simply throw it less often. It is a great weapon if batters don’t know it’s coming, but right now they are sitting on it. His fastball, which he is throwing 31 percent of the time now after throwing it 39 percent of the time in the middle of the year, is now being let go. Batters are waiting for the cutter, swinging at the four-seamer just 39 percent of the time after offering at it 54 percent of the time earlier in the year. Obviously damage can still be done against a fastball, but if he is locating it, with his velocity it can still be a major weapon. He needs to trust that weapon and start making it the focal point of his repertoire again. The cutter was a great addition to his game and it took things to a new level for him, but the league has adjusted. It’s time for Eovaldi to make the counter-adjustment necessary to get back on track.