Welcome to Over the Monster’s One Big Question series. For those unfamiliar, this is something of a season roster preview where over the next 40(ish) (week)days we’ll be taking a look at each player on the 40-man roster prior to the season. If changes are made to the roster between now and Opening Day, we’ll cover the newly added players. Rather than previewing what to expect in a general sense, the goal of this series is to find one overarching question for each player heading into the coming season. We’ll go one-by-one alphabetically straight down the roster, and today we talk about Nathan Eovaldi.
The Question: Can Nathan Eovaldi carry 2018’s low walk rate over to 2019?
Nathan Eovaldi’s performance in Game Three of the World Series, as the losing pitcher in the lone World Series game his team lost, will forever stand out as the most memorable performance in that series. It was as impressive as any I’d seen from a pitcher in the postseason in at least 14 years, and teammates were outspoken about the effect it had on them heading into Game Four and beyond. Despite all of that and his electric performance throughout October, Eovaldi didn’t take home any individual honors in the playoffs. If there was a Playoffs MVP award — which there should be, but that’s a discussion for another day — he would have won.
Hardware or no, Eovaldi became a Boston legend in that month. The fanbase took to him immediately, and not even just for his postseason performance since he was particularly great in the regular season in matchups with the Yankees. Hot tip for Red Sox players who want to be loved: Do good baseball things against that team from New York. Even just expanding the scope and looking at the year as a whole, both with the Red Sox and before that with the Rays, Eovaldi had a very good overall season. He pitched to a 3.81 ERA with a 3.63 FIP and a 3.23 DRA. He earned himself that four-year deal Boston signed him to back in early December.
Now, there is some legitimate concern about how much of that performance Eovaldi is going to be able to carry over into the coming season. Just yesterday we looked at some PECOTA projections and the Baseball Prospectus projection system was not a big believer in him. Considering his history as a middling pitcher with an injury history, it’s totally understandable for projection systems and analysts alike to have at least some doubt on Eovaldi’s 2019. In these situations, cautious projecting is generally the best play.
That being said, there is certainly reason to believe the righty can and will continue to pitch like he did a year ago. The biggest reason to be optimistic for the 28-year-old’s (he’ll be 29 in three days....happy early birthday Nathan) 2019 season is his cut fastball. This is something I went relatively deep on back in December shortly after the signing became official. As I say in that post, it wasn’t exactly a new pitch for Eovaldi, but he certainly emphasized it in 2018 more than ever before and it was an absolutely devastating weapon at its best. If you ever need some baseball porn in your life, go look at the gifs in the linked post.
Anyway, yeah, the cutter is good and there’s little reason to believe it’s going away this year. That’s part of who Eovaldi is now. The other factor to watch for in order for him to stay at a similar level of success in the coming season would be his control. Eovaldi never had major control issues earlier in his career or anything, but he generally sat around average in the walk department on a year-to-year basis. In 2018, he showed better control than ever and some of the best in all of baseball. Among the 140 pitchers who tossed at least 100 innings last year, Eovaldi’s 4.4 percent walk rate was lower than all but five. It goes without saying that letting fewer runners on the bases for free is only going to make it easier to put up big numbers.
So, the question is how he was able to suddenly cut his walk rate down to an elite rate and whether or not he’ll be able to keep all or at least most of those gains in a new year. The how is fairly straight-forward, but the second question becomes a lot more difficult to answer as a non-fortune teller.
The how starts as simple as it can possibly get: The dude threw strikes. Eovaldi absolutely pounded the zone, and while that led to a bit of a home run problem in Tampa Bay (he probably was aided by a bit of home run luck in Boston) there weren’t extra baserunners because he wasn’t walking guys. It’s close to the Rick Porcello approach in that way. Anyway, yeah, he threw strikes. According to Baseball Prospectus’ plate discipline numbers, he hit the zone a whopping 56.8 percent of the time. Among the 147 pitchers who threw at least 1000 pitches, only Rich Hill hit the zone more often.
However, this wasn’t exactly a new phenomenon for Eovaldi. His zone rate in 2018 was a career-high, but it was only a percentage point higher than his previous career-high and he’s now been above 50 percent in six of his seven seasons in the bigs. So if simply throwing strikes doesn’t explain the massive improvement in the walk department, where does it come from? Well, Eovaldi got more swings in 2018. His swing rates, again according to BP, improved substantially on pitches both in and out of the zone. Among the aforementioned group of 147 pitchers, the Red Sox playoff hero ranked fifth on swings in the zone and 19th on swings out of the zone.
It goes without saying less patience from hitters will equal fewer walks, but again what we really care about is whether or not this will stick around. The key here once again comes back to that cutter. This was the big repertoire change for Eovaldi in 2018, and it led to all of those swings. In the past, as we’ve discussed before, the righty threw a lot of hard-but-straight fastballs. Obviously, with a straight pitch major-league hitters mostly know where it’s going to end up right out of the pitcher’s hand, which makes it easier to wait for your pitch, which in turn gives even a pitcher who hits the zone plenty to throw four balls. It’s also easier to foul off borderline pitches, which again makes it easy for a pitcher to walk a bunch of guys even with a high zone rate. With the cutter, though, Eovaldi has a pitch with real movement at a high velocity, and at it’s best it’s a 95 mph frisbee. Batters think they see a fastball middle-in so they swing before it breaks out off the outer edge. Suddenly, those long counts and eventual walks just start to fade.
It’s probably somewhat evident by the tone of this post, but I’m mostly confident in Eovaldi being a very good pitcher in 2019. Call it bias, call it February optimism, call it whatever you want. I’m just not sure how you could watch him with that cutter last year and not think he can be very good. Not an ace, but certainly above-average. The obvious rebuttal will be that the book is out on the cutter and the league will adjust. Well, sure. However, A) good luck adjusting to, again, a 95 mph frisbee and B) Eovaldi has a very smart staff to help him make counter-adjustments, headed by Brian Bannister. It’s no sure thing Eovaldi will be the same guy and if we do start to see hitters lay off those cutters more than last year we may have to worry. As long as he can keep his walk rate below or around five percent, though? 2018 Eovaldi should be (mostly) here to stay.