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The good and bad of Nathan Eovaldi’s first two starts of 2020

Eovaldi has been pretty good to start the year, but a deeper dive reveals what’s working and what could spell trouble in the weeks ahead.

Boston Red Sox v New York Mets Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

Nathan Eovaldi is an ace for an MLB team in 2020. Now that’s not really saying much considering how terrible the Red Sox’s starting rotation has been in the first week of the campaign, and plenty will argue that not every team has an ace just because they have a No. 1 starter. But even if its just a nominal honor, Eovaldi is the best starting pitcher the Red Sox have right now and through his first two starts of the year, he’s come close to living up to such a title, while struggling enough to leave the door open behind him.

After starting against and nearly out-dueling Jacob deGrom on Wednesday, Eovaldi has now made two starts for the Red Sox and in that time time has produced a 2.45 ERA, 3.64 FIP and 55 ERA-. He’s also scattered 13 hits, eight strikeouts and two walks across 11 total innings. OK, so that’s not really the stuff of aces, but the Red Sox can’t afford to be picky right now.

In his first start, which he made on Opening Day like any other self-respecting ace, Eovaldi was showered with gifts. The first gift was the opponent: the Baltimore Orioles. Baltimore won all of 54 games in 2019, which was just a bit better than when they won 47 in 2018. Making matters worse (or better if you’re Eovaldi and the Red Sox) was the trade of Jonathan Villar, leaving a team that produced an 88 wRC+ with even less punch than a year ago.

Eovaldi took advantage of Baltimore’s less-than-stellar lineup, pumping out six innings in which he allowed one earned run on five hits and a single walk while striking out four. His win probability added for the game was a game-high .212 and that’s before considering his second gift, which came in the form of a 13-run offensive eruption from the Red Sox to secure Eovaldi a victory.

In the start against Baltimore, Eovaldi’s velocity was excellent. He averaged 97.7 miles per hour on his fastball and 90.8 miles per hour on his cutter, which were the two pitches he threw most often in the game. He also kept the ball on the ground relatively frequently, with a 66.7 percent ground ball rate, although he got a little lucky by allowing a 44.4 percent hard contact rate and just a 16.7 percent soft contact rate.

Eovaldi was a bit less effective against the Mets on Wednesday. He threw the exact same number of pitches as he did in the opener (89), but only got through five innings while allowing two earned runs on eight hits and a walk. He also tacked on four strikeouts. He actually held a 2-1 lead in the fifth, but after striking out Rene Rivera to start the frame, he let up a solo home run to Brandon Nimmo that tied things up. He got through the rest of the inning unscathed thanks to a double play, but exited the game with the score still knotted at 2-2.

Eovaldi’s velocity slowed a bit in the game, with his fastball averaging 96.5 miles per hour. He also leaned more heavily on his curveball than he had in the first game, throwing it 11.2 percent of the time against the Mets vs. 6.7 percent of the time against Baltimore. The increase in curveball usage came at the expense of his split-fingered fastball, which he threw 14.6 percent of the time against the Mets and 20.2 percent of the time against the Orioles. Despite a minor drop in velocity and a slightly different mix of pitches, Eovaldi got much more weak contact (31.3 percent soft contact rate). However, he also elicited fewer swings outside of the zone (27.8 percent vs. 34 percent) even though he his strikeout rate was just a bit higher (18.2 percent vs. 17.4 percent).

Baltimore Orioles v. Boston Red Sox Photo by Adam Glanzman/MLB Photos via Getty Images

As is always the theme early in the season, even one as short as this one, its difficult to tell what is real and what isn’t from the first week. Christian Vazquez is obviously better than Mike Trout now, but other than that, what else do we really know?

For Eovaldi, there are a few things that have stuck out and will be worth monitoring as the season progresses (even though it should and could end right now).

On the positive side, Eovaldi is being aggressive and getting the ball over the plate early in counts. He has thrown a first-pitch strike 66.7 percent of the time, which would be a career-high rate if it stuck. Although his overall zone percentage is only slightly up from a year ago, he has drastically cut his walk rate from 2019 (11.6 percent) to a much more palatable 4.4 percent.

That success has come as he’s upped his cutter and split-finger fastball usage. He is throwing his cutter 34.3 percent of the time, which would be the highest rate of his career, and he is tossing split-fingered fastball 17.4 percent of the time, which would be the most frequently he’s thrown it since 2016 if the trend holds. The split-finger fastball has been a more valuable pitch, with his cutter actually a negative offering to this point, but neither have come anywhere close to being as effective as his fastball.

Eovaldi’s run prevention work has been solid despite a high opponent batting average on balls in play (.364) because he’s buckled down with runners on base. He has posted an 89 percent left on base rate, which is much higher than any mark of his career. In fact, he’s never had a season higher than 76.3 percent (2011). His strengths in stranding runners has gone along with a relatively solid job of keeping the ball out of the air. Nimmo’s home run notwithstanding, Eovaldi is allowing a 47.1 percent ground ball rate compared with a 23.5 percent fly ball rate. For comparison, those marks were at 44.6 percent and 36.3 percent, respectively, a year ago.

That leads us into the more worrisome aspects of the first few starts, although you could argue that his high BABIP allowed makes his startling left-on-base rate unsustainable and points to danger. A big reason for that high BABIP is when batters are making contact, they are squaring it up. Eovaldi is working on his highest soft contact rate since 2011 (23.5 percent currently), but he is allowing line drives on nearly 30 percent of batted balls and a pull rate of 47.1 percent. When you add in the fact that his strikeout rate has plummeted to 17.8 percent from marks of more than 20 percent in the previous two seasons, there’s reason to be a little concerned, especially since Eovaldi hasn’t gone all that deep in either start.

So where does that leave us? We’ve just gone through a lot of numbers and all of them are based on 11 innings of work. They’ve been 11 relatively solid innings overall, even if there are a few red flags. If Eovaldi can build on the positive, there’s a chance he’ll be the top starter the Red Sox desperately need.

Pitch data courtesy of FanGraphs.