Welcome to our 2019 Red Sox in Review series. This is, as you can probably guess, where we will be reviewing all of the players who made at least a modest impact on the Red Sox in 2019. Every week day (minus a week in October where I’ll be mostly off) we’ll deep diving into one player every day. For each edition we’ll describe the season in a sentence, look at the positives from the year as well as negatives, look back at our one big question from the season preview and look ahead to the 2020 season. We’ll be going in alphabetical order of the players on this list. You can look over that list, too, and drop a name in the comments if you think I left anyone out who should be mentioned here. Got it? Good. Today we focus on Nathan Eovaldi.
2019 in one sentence
Nathan Eovaldi suffered through a year of injury and underperformance and emerged as one of the faces of the disappointing 2019 season for the team as a whole.
If we’re being honest here, I really had to strain for positives in this season for Eovaldi. Granted, a big part of that is because Eovaldi just wasn’t on the field for a long time and it was tough to build up positives in a lost year. That, in its own right, is a negative, though. I’m getting ahead of myself, though. If you really do want to look for things to be happy with for Eovaldi moving forward, you have to start with his fastball. This has always been the big righty’s signature pitch due mostly to the big velocity, and that didn’t change. His velocity stayed constant, and even grew minimally from 2018, coming in at an average of 97.5 mph (per Baseball Savant). It wasn’t just the heat, though. We know major-league hitters in today’s game can succeed against high velocity if it’s not commanded well, but they didn’t do great against Eovaldi’s fastball. The righty got whiffs on 28 percent of his fastballs (up from 24 percent last year) and allowed an expected wOBA of .303. Now, the actual wOBA was way up at .382 — over 100 points higher than last year’s mark — so your mileage may vary on whether or no we can count this as a success or not. That all depends on how much you buy into the batted ball data and relating metrics from Statcast. Like I said, we’re straining for positives over here.
Moving to a little bit broader of a skill, Eovaldi also missed more bats in 2019 than he had before. Now, that doesn’t mean he struck out batters at a much higher rate, because that wasn’t as significant. He did up his K/9 from 8.2 to 9.3, but a lot of that was just by virtue of facing more batters per inning. On a rate basis, his K% only jumped from 22 percent to 23 percent. It’s not nothing, but it’s not much to write home about either. In terms of swinging strike rate (per Baseball Prospectus), though, he saw an increase from 22 percent to a career-high 27 percent. For some context, that put him in roughly the top 40 percent in 2019 compared to the top 70 percent in 2018. That’s a significant jump, and should lead to more strikeouts if the command improves.
So, there are a number of different directions in which we can go to start this section. I’m going to go with the injury, though. Now, keep in mind that putting an injury under the negative is not really blaming a player, because pitchers get injured. That’s just part of the job. However, it was a concern specifically with Eovaldi coming into the year and it had a great effect on the Red Sox season. The righty went down with an elbow injury after just four starts and had to undergo surgery to remove loose bodies from his elbow. The recovery then took a little longer than the team had hoped, and they had to rush him back just to get him into the bullpen. The entire thing was a mess, and again while it’s not a matter of Eovaldi just not being tough or anything he did or didn’t do with his preparation, it’s impossible to deny the effect it had on Boston’s 2019 shortcomings.
Then, there’s the on-the-field performance. Eovadi finished the season with 12 starts and 11 relief appearances, pitching to a 5.99 ERA, a 5.93 FIP and a 6.37 DRA over 67 2⁄3 innings. It’s impossible to totally separate the performance from the injury, of course. As I mentioned above, Eovaldi was rushed back after just one rehab appearance and thrown right into the fire. He was then shifted back into the rotation before he was really ready for that role, too. The team was at a desperate point with the pitching for so much of this season, and that was always clear with the way they handled Eovaldi.
Whatever you want to blame, the numbers are undeniable, though. The biggest issue for the righty simply came down to consistently poor command. Eovaldi ended this season with walking nearly 12 percent of the batters he faced, a rate that was surpassed by only 17 of the 267 pitchers who threw at least 60 innings in 2019. Prior to 2018 he had never really been a control artist, but always kept his rates at a respectable level. In 2019 the control was a disaster. Furthermore, when he threw strikes and batters put the ball in play, it was often with authority. His 2.13 homers allowed per nine innings put him in the exact same place on the leaderboard as his walk rate. It doesn’t take any sort of extreme baseball knowledge to realize that a combination of walks and homers is going to lead to short, disastrous outings.
Speaking of which, the length the Red Sox got from Eovaldi was yet another mark against the righty. Again, the injury and subsequent rushing played a big role here, but it all connects together with the team’s disappointment. The Red Sox simply didn’t get innings from their starters all year, and Eovaldi was part of that. He only recorded more than fifteen outs (five innings) twice in his twelve starts. One of those outings was his final start before initially hitting the injured list. After he rejoined the rotation late in the year, he made eight starts and recorded more than 13 outs just twice. There was, of course, no reason to push him too hard as the year went on, but it also is a symptom of this team’s big issue of relying too much on a bullpen that, while solid, was not good enough for that kind of role.
If we want to dig a little bit deeper, I think perhaps the biggest issue for Eovaldi right now would be back with his repertoire. I talked earlier about how his fastball appeared to be as good as ever, even if the results weren’t always there. In 2018, the big reason he was able to take his performance to a new level was the emergence of his cutter as a true weapon. That pitch took a major step back in 2019. He threw it far less often (23 percent compared to 32 percent), his whiff rate plummeted (12 percent compared to 17 percent), and his xWOBA ballooned (.424 compared to .309). It’s not that the pitch moved significantly less or that his command got significantly worse. Instead, it’s that hitters just better anticipated the offering. Below you can see the swing rate against his cutter in 2018 compared to 2019, and you’ll notice how much more red there is on the right side of the zone last year. Whether the issue was sequencing or mechanical or something else entirely is perhaps the biggest key to unlocking a bounce-back season for Eovaldi in 2020.
The Big Question
Can Nathan Eovaldi carry 2018’s low walk rate over to 2019?
No. I really already covered this above, but to go into a bit more detail the issue really came down to hitting the zone. Eovaldi’s zone rate (per Baseball Prospectus) was at a career low 49 percent, and he also induced swings on pitches out of the zone at his lowest rate since 2014. A lot of that came down to the cutter, which again was discussed above.
Eovaldi is among the biggest wildcards for the Red Sox in 2020 and could be the difference between a bounce-back season and another disappointing finish. Of course, we don’t really know what the roster will look like so it’s hard to say that for sure. I could see Eovaldi’s season going in a number of different ways. He could easily be back as a solid number three or four starter. He could end up back in a relief role for the long-term. He could spend most of the year on the shelf again. Everything and anything is possible at this point. The key is going to be the success of that cutter (or another secondary to pair with the fastball as primary options) as well as just a limiting of walks.