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The three keys for Nathan Eovaldi’s 2020 success

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He looked like an ace at times this year.

Baltimore Orioles v Boston Red Sox Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

Nathan Eovaldi was a major bright spot for the Red Sox’ lackluster pitching staff in this shortened season. He finished with a team-low 3.72 ERA while limiting walks and missing bats at a career-best rate. There were doubts about how Eovaldi’s four-year, $68 million contract was going to pan out for the Red Sox, but his performance this year silenced those critics, at least temporarily.

Before the season started, I wrote an article on what adjustments I wanted to see Nathan Eovaldi make following his struggles in 2019. These adjustments were: Regaining a feel for his cutter, improving his control, and ditching his curveball in favor of his slider. Let’s take a look and see if Eovaldi took my advice in any of these areas.

To start, his cutter was much improved this year. This offering has always been one of Eovaldi’s go-to pitches, but it was crushed in 2019. To wit, opponents’ average exit velocity against it was 92.3 mph, and they whiffed on the pitch just 12 percent of the time. Those numbers were greatly improved this year, however, with an average exit velocity of 87.4, and a whiff rate of 24.6 percent, a career-high for his cutter. He also threw it for a strike much more than he did the year before, which is a nice segue into my next point.

That point being: Eovaldi’s control was impeccable this year. After walking over 11 percent of batters in 2019, that number decreased to a minuscule 3.5 percent in 2020, which was better than all but four of the 111 pitchers who tossed at least 40 innings this past summer. His zone rate, which measures the percentage of strikes thrown, increased for three of his four pitches, particularly his fastball. His fastball’s zone rate improved by a wildly impressive 10 percentage points. Continuing this trend of strike-throwing will be important for Eovaldi to sustain his success.

Finally, Eovaldi did not stop throwing his curveball for his slider like I had suggested. Instead, he went in the other direction and ditched the slider entirely. I was quite surprised by this due to how effective his slider was in 2018, but the results speak for themselves. Against his curveball, opponents hit an infinitesimal .111 and slugged just .148. They also whiffed an unreal 44.7 percent of the time. Eovaldi’s suddenly curveball became his best pitch, and is one of the main reasons for his dominance in 2020.

The combination of Eovaldi’s improved cutter, better control, and nasty curveball were all major factors in his bounce-back year. It will be huge for the Red Sox’ pitching staff If he can continue these improvements into next year. Potentially adding Chris Sale and Eduardo Rodriguez to a staff that includes this version of Nathan Eovaldi certainly bodes well for the 2021 Red Sox.