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2021 in Review: Nathan Eovaldi should have been a Cy Young finalist

Nathan Eovaldi was the unquestioned ace of the Red Sox’s staff in 2021 and among the best starters in baseball overall.

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Wild Card Round - New York Yankees v Boston Red Sox Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Welcome to our 2021 Boston Red Sox in Review series. This is, as you can probably guess, where we will be reviewing all of the players who made at least a modest impact on the Red Sox in 2021. Every week day we’ll be deep diving into one player, describing the season in a sentence, looking at the positives from the year as well as negatives, looking back at our one big question from our season preview and looking ahead to the 2022 season. Today we look at Nathan Eovaldi’s 2021 campaign.

2021 in one sentence

The man affectionately known as “Nasty Nate” anchored the Red Sox’s rotation and was a legitimate Cy Young candidate (or should have been) during the best full season of his career.

The Positives

There were very few pitchers in baseball who were more important or more valuable to their teams than Nathan Eovaldi was for the Red Sox in 2021. In fact, only Corbin Burnes and Zack Wheeler accrued more fWAR than Eovaldi’s 5.6. In addition to being leagues better than most other pitchers in 2021, that 5.6 number was also far and away the best of Eovaldi’s 10-year career, with his previous high-water mark coming in 2014 with the Marlins (3.3 fWAR).

One of the keys to piling up wins above replacement is simply playing a lot. Eovaldi was solid in 2020, but he only started in nine games and therefore produced just 0.9 fWAR. In 2021, he logged 32 starts and 182 1/3 innings, which both rank second in his career behind his marks from that 2014 campaign. Such durability was a fortunate characteristic of the Red Sox’s entire staff, but considering the workload Eovaldi carried as the staff ace, getting him to pitch the entire season was a major positive. In addition to the durability, Eovaldi was also consistent, as he had an ERA below 4.00 in all but one month all season.

Of course, just playing a lot isn’t the only part of the fWAR calculation. You also have to play well and, as that consistency I just mentioned suggests, Eovaldi did that and then some. On the way to the first All-Star Game appearance of his career, Eovaldi went 11-9 with a 3.75 ERA, but it was his peripheral numbers and work in limiting walks and home runs that set him apart. Among qualified pitchers, nobody in baseball walked batters at a lower rate than Eovaldi (1.73 per nine innings) and only three pitchers (Burnes, Wheeler and Lance McCullers Jr.) allowed fewer home runs per nine innings than Eovaldi (0.74). On the peripheral side, Eovaldi had a 2.79 FIP and a 66 FIP-, ranking third in baseball in both metrics among qualified starters.

As you can imagine, with that kind of work, he was a shoe-in to be named a finalist for the American League Cy Young award … *checks notes* … I am being told he was not named a finalist. Well, that doesn’t make any sense.

Anyway, Eovaldi’s sparkling season was powered mostly by his four-seam fastball and curveball. His fastball remained one of the hardest thrown in baseball, as he ranked in the 86th percentile in MLB in fastball velocity. Meanwhile, his curveball was easily his most valuable pitch, according to Baseball Savant. He was also effective with his slider and cutter.

Eovaldi didn’t just amaze in the regular season either. He also had some big moments in the playoffs, with none more majestic than when he dominated the Yankees in the AL wildcard game.

The Negatives

While there were highlights in the postseason, Eovaldi also had some tough moments, particularly in game four of the ALCS when he was brought in at the top of the ninth inning to maintain a 2-2 tie only to give up the lead in what felt like a series-altering loss.

As for season-long negatives, most are just small infractions, with some being so minor as to mean very little in the long run. For example, Eovaldi’s strikeout rate dipped slightly and his walk rate was technically higher than last year, but they were still in very solid territory and we already mentioned how good he was at not walking batters. Eovaldi also had the second-lowest groundball rate of his career (42 percent), meaning he let more balls into the air, but he managed to keep a large percentage of those in the ballpark, so it didn’t hurt the bottom line that much. Lastly, while most of his repertoire was very good, Eovaldi’s splitter left something to be desired.

The Big Question

Can Nathan Eovaldi keep throwing strikes?

As Matt pointed out back in the preseason, Eovaldi had shown he could avoid walks at an elite rate before, and while there are multiple factors behind that, getting the ball over the plate is a huge one, especially for Eovaldi. Well, Eovaldi threw strikes on 55.1 percent of his offerings in 2021, which was the best mark he’s had since joining the Red Sox. So, yes, Nathan Eovaldi can keep throwing strikes.

2022 and Beyond

Next year will be the final one on the four-year deal Eovaldi signed with the Red Sox after his heroics in the 2018 postseason. Well that certainly flew by quickly, didn’t it? Eovaldi will be in his age 32 season for the contract year, but after what he did this past season, he has a very good chance of earning himself another multi-year deal next winter (assuming the CBA negotiations and everything this winter don’t derail the season or anything like that). Looking a bit more at the short term, Eovaldi will come into the 2022 season at the top of the Red Sox’s rotation and although his home run avoidance may not be entirely repeatable, the rest of what Eovaldi did in 2021 seems sustainable for at least one more year if not much longer.