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The Red Sox need Nathan Eovaldi now more than ever

The Red Sox were always going to need a bounce back season from Eovaldi, but that seems especially pressing now.

Atlanta Braves v Boston Red Sox Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

After Mookie Betts got traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers, I decided to start a franchise with the Boston Red Sox in MLB The Show 19. If Betts wasn’t going to play for the Red Sox in real life, at least I could play pretend. When I was setting the game mode up, I opted to go for current rosters rather than default rosters. Current rosters are updated throughout the season, as the developers at Sony San Diego push updates that add new players and change ratings based on what is happening in real life. That means you could play as upgraded versions of new stars like Vladimir Guerrero Jr. or Mike Yastrzemski last fall. However, it also means that players who performed poorly were knocked down.

As I built my lineups and rotations, I noticed that Nathan Eovaldi was one of those victims. After a dismal 2019 season, the game rated Eovaldi a 67 on the 100-point scale. It was quite the downgrade, especially since he was a 76 in the default form of the game. The rationale behind the ratings drop is sound. Eovaldi was robbed of much of the campaign by injuries and was largely ineffective when he was able to pitch. As he enters year two of the four-year deal he signed last offseason, the righty needs to recapture at least some of the magic of the 2018 World Series run.

Atlanta Braves v Boston Red Sox Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

That need may have just been ratcheted up from pressing to absolute necessity. We learned on Tuesday that Chris Sale is dealing with a sore elbow and the words “Tommy John surgery” found their way into the room as well. Sale was already going to miss the beginning of the season, but this news points to a much longer absence. Even with Sale, healthy the Red Sox did not have the deepest rotation in baseball, but without him, they will be stretched even thinner. To make such a situation tenable, Eovaldi has to return to form and do so quickly.

That is going to be a tough ask for the right-hander. Eovaldi just couldn’t seem to buy outs last season. His ERA skyrocketed to 5.99 and his FIP came along for the ride (5.90), with both marks finishing as career-highs. Eovaldi’s newfound talent for allowing runs was a product of his inability to find the zone or avoid the barrel of the bat. His walk rate hit double digits for the first time since 2011 (11.6 percent) and he allowed hard contact on 37.1 percent of batted balls, which was a rise of more than four percentage points from 2018 and, you guessed it, the worst mark of his career. A whole bunch of those hard hit balls landed over the fence as well, with Eovaldi’s home run-per-fly ball rate nearly doubling between 2018 and 2019 (12.2 percent vs. 22.9 percent).

Throughout the entire season, Eovaldi’s pitch selection changed up quite a bit. He went from throwing sliders 11.8 percent of the time in 2018 to just 3.4 percent of the time in 2019. He compensated for that by offering up his curveball a career-high 17.2 percent of the time. There’s no guarantee that returning to more sliders will reverse his fortunes on the mound, especially since most of his pitches had negative values per FanGraphs, but such a drastic change in offerings certainly seems out of place.

Eovaldi’s struggles weren’t limited to when he started, but things get even uglier if we just look at his starts. With a 6.13 ERA, 6.71 FIP, 25.4 percent home run-per-fly ball rate and 12.9 percent walk rate as a starter, Eovaldi was worse in such a role, although he did give up a bit less hard contact (36.5 percent). Even when he was starting, he wasn’t exactly eating up the innings, averaging fewer than five frames per outing and putting a great strain on a less than stellar Red Sox bullpen.

Eovaldi may have bounced between the starting rotation and the bullpen last season, but the Red Sox can’t afford to use him as a reliever this season. There just aren’t enough pitchers with starting experience at the MLB level, especially now that Sale’s status is up in the air. That brings us to the part of the article where we’ll try to find some optimism.

There’s no denying that Eovaldi allowed too many runs last season, but while his ERA and FIP were both grotesque, his xFIP was slightly more palatable, falling more than a full run below both of those marks. We’re still talking about an unsightly number (4.89), but its a bit less unsightly. That’s something.

If we go beyond the grasping at straws category, there is real hope to be found in Eovaldi’s velocity. There was very little perceivable drop in the speed of his pitches, particularly his fastball, which still averaged more than 97 miles per hour and was actually a tick better than 2018 (97.7 vs. 97.5 MPH). In addition, Eovaldi was still a strikeout-reliant hurler. His strikeout rate of 23.2 percent was the best of his career and only fell to 21.6 percent when he was a starter. Lastly, Eovaldi left 74.6 percent of runners on base, which was a significant leap forward from 2018. The problem was that he let too many runners on base to begin with thanks to a career-worst 1.58 WHIP.

We can also look to spring training, that ever-flowing fountain of hope, to lift our spirits. Eovaldi has been really great in his first two appearances of the spring, allowing three hits and no earned runs across five innings while striking out eight batters. The Red Sox really need that to be a sign of things to come because unfortunately turning on a PlayStation 4 and playing the season whichever way they choose is not an option.