When the Red Sox did not add a reliever at the trade deadline, many of us were upset at Dave Dombrowski once again ignoring a clear and obvious hole on this roster. He spoke with the media that day and gave a lot of reasons for the lack of a move. Among them was that they were adding an impact arm to their relief corps, it just came in the form of a player already in the organization. That addition, of course, was Nathan Eovaldi.
To be fair to Dombrowski, who had many of his answers following the deadline fall totally flat, there was reason to be excited about Eovaldi. That’s not to say his success was a guarantee, but it wasn’t crazy to expect a big impact from the righty. We know the talent that he possesses in that arm as we saw it all of last year and particularly in the postseason, which came partially in this very role. We’ve seen the kind of big-time velocity he has, and it’s hard not to see that and think of a late-inning relief role. He’s always been thought of as a potential reliever as is, so now that he’s there temporarily people were excited to see it in action.
Unfortunately, things have not gone according to plan in any aspect and the team has totally tanked. Obviously, the tanking is not mostly or really more than a tiny bit Eovaldi’s fault. If you’re ranking people to blame for the team falling out of the race, Eovaldi is probably somewhere in the 20s. Still, the hope was that he was going to click and become either the top arm in the bullpen or, at the very least, one of them. This has not happened.
Now, we have to mention here that all of this is a deal in an extremely small sample. That is generally the case with relievers and even more so with a guy who has been back for less than a month. Eovaldi has only been able to make all of six appearances since returning for a total of 5 2⁄3 innings. In that time he has pitched to an ugly 9.53 ERA while opponents have posted a 1.040 OPS against the righty. On the positive side, his strikeout and walk numbers — nine and two, respectively — are very good. He’s also only allowed one homer, a solo shot in his last outing against the Royals.
So, he’s doing well in the three true outcomes and we’re dealing in an extremely small sample. With that information alone, general thought would lead to the idea that Eovaldi has simply suffered from bad luck. That isn’t entirely untrue, as the main detractor from his performance has just been a plethora of hits. He has allowed a whopping eleven hits in 5 2⁄3 innings and opponents have a .556 batting average on balls in play. I don’t care how poorly you’re pitching. It’s nearly impossible to maintain a BABIP that sky-high.
On the other hand, it’s overly simplistic to say it’s all bad luck for Eovaldi. The truth is that his command has been off and it’s led to a tremendous amount of hard contact for his opponents. According to Fangraphs, for example, his hard-hit rate since coming back in a relief role has been up above 47 percent. For context, that’s about ten percentage points higher than the average hard-hit rate against major-league relievers. He also been allowing a lot of balls in the air with a 37 percent ground ball rate. When you combine hard-hit balls and balls in the air, you are going to be smacked around.
The issue here is fairly simple, though. Eovaldi simply has not had sharp command and is serving up a lot of hittable pitches. In terms of stuff and velocity, everything has been roughly at the level you’d expect. He just isn’t locating them where he needs to. Below shows where all of his pitches have been located relative to the zone since coming back from the injured list.
There is a total of 130 pitches shown on this plot. Among them, a full ten percent have been right down the middle of the strike zone. That is not ideal! Expanding a little bit we can look at the two middle bands of the zone with the horizontal middle-third and the vertical middle-third. Thirty percent — almost a third! — of his pitches have been in those two bands. It doesn’t matter how good your stuff is if you’re consistently throwing pitches in those zones. Major-league hitters are going to punish you in those spots every single time.
The final point here is that his cutter just hasn’t been up to the point it was last season. In 2018, the reason he was able to take such a big step forward first in Tampa and then after the trade to Boston was that he added a legitimate weapon back into his repertoire with the cutter. We’ve all seen the gifs and the ugly swings produced by the pitch. This year, it just hasn’t had the same effectiveness. Since coming back to the bullpen, his whiff rate is about half the rate as it was last year at just five percent and a whopping 30 percent of his cutters have been put in play. That last rate was just 17 percent last year. He needs that pitch to be working for him to succeed regardless of the role.
On the one hand, I don’t think there’s much to worry about with respect to Eovaldi. He probably isn’t going to be that consistently dominant high-end arm many were hoping for, but he should still be good. A lot of this likely comes down to rust, something he was not allowed to shake off in the minors after sitting for three months with his injury. The team inexplicably only gave him a single one-inning rehab appearance. That was a strange move at the time and it’s looking worse and worse as time goes on. On the other hand, even if he does recover it’s almost certainly too little too late.