We are nearing the final month of the season, which means the playoff races are going to get more and more interesting. For the Red Sox, that might not be such a good thing, as an extended slump has made their hold on a postseason spot a bit more tenuous. But while the American League Wildcard race is the primary storyline the Red Sox should be concerned with right now, there are some other competitions going on across the league related to end-of-the-year awards.
Despite the generally strong play of guys like Xander Bogaerts, Rafael Devers and J.D. Martinez, the Red Sox don’t really have a serious candidate for MVP, especially since Shohei Ohtani has played like, well, nobody we’ve ever seen. That said, the Sox do have a contender for the top prize for pitching in the AL in Nathan Eovaldi. Now, Eovaldi is far from the frontrunner (Gerrit Cole probably holds that distinction), but during what has been a career year for the Red Sox’s current ace (at least until Chris Sale is fully up to speed), he has more than inserted himself into the conversation. So let’s look at the case for Eovaldi to wind up with the trophy at the end of the season.
Let’s start at the top of the evaluation pyramid. Based on pure value or, in this case, wins above replacement, Eovaldi stands above every other starter in the AL based on FanGraphs’ wins above replacement metric and among the top 10 on the Baseball-Reference side. Thank you for your service, FanGraphs. In addition to being near the top of the league in WAR, Eovaldi is also one of the most effective pitchers when just looking at what he can control. Among qualified AL starters, he is second in both FIP (2.82) and FIP- (67). Now, his expected marks in those categories aren’t as glowing and his ERA sits at 3.72, but just going on his actually results and ability to help his team win and to limit runs based on just his own arm, Eovaldi is among the best in the AL.
Taking a less broad view and diving into some of the deeper metrics, Eovaldi’s best case for the AL Cy Young Award rides on his exceptional ability to keep others teams from either squaring up his pitches and lifting them over the fence or getting on base via free passes.
Let’s start with Eovaldi’s success at avoiding the juicier parts of the bat. Simply put, the right-hander has just not given up all that much hard contact this year. He has the lowest hard-hit rate in the AL (26.4 percent), according to FanGraphs, and is in the top 73rd percentile in MLB overall in barrel rate, according to Baseball Savant.
It’s not just that batters aren’t hitting the ball hard against Eovaldi, however. In addition, he is keeping the ball in the park even on the rare occasions when someone does get a hold of one of his pitches. As evidence, he is second in the AL in home run to fly ball ratio (7.7 percent) and leads the entire league in home runs allowed per nine innings (0.68). If those rate statistics don’t do it for you, here are the counting numbers: Eovaldi has allowed 11 home runs in 145 total innings. It’s been a nice change after he struggled a bit with the long ball over the last few seasons and a key to his first career All-Star selection earlier this summer.
Limiting home runs at an elite level would probably be enough to build a solid season, but Eovaldi has gone above and beyond by also keeping his walk numbers down. When opposing players step into the batter’s box, they can’t expect to just wait him out because Eovaldi fills up the strike zone, ranking fifth in the AL in first pitch strike rate (65.6 percent), third in zone rate (48.1 percent) and among the top 10 pitchers in the league in both swinging strike rate and called strike rate. With such a consistent buffet of strikes, Eovaldi doesn’t give an inch to batters, as evidenced by his AL-low walk rate (4.3 percent). He has been whittling that number down over the last few months, as he has allowed more than one walk in just two starts since the beginning of June.
In addition to being a standout pitcher when it comes to home runs and walks allowed, Eovaldi has featured one of the best repertoires in the game this season. He still relies mostly on his fastball and although it isn’t the best heater around, he can still reaches triple digits with it, ranking in the top 86th percentile in fastball velocity in MLB. He then works in a number of solid secondary pitches, particularly his curveball and cutter. Those two have been his best weapons this year, as he leads the AL in cutter runs above average (3.8) and ranks second in curveball runs above average (2.4), according to FanGraphs. With such effective secondary stuff, Eovaldi’s fastball becomes that much more lively, as it’s tough to go in looking for a bender only to need to adjust to a pitch that might hit 100 miles per hour on the radar gun.
All in all, the evidence on Eovaldi’s case in the AL Cy Young discussion is pretty solid, but there are plenty of other pitchers with similarly strong (if not stronger) resumes, including Cole and Lance Lynn. Also playing against Eovaldi is his OK but not great ERA (3.72) and his lack of truly elite strikeout stuff. Speaking to the former issue, while ERA is not the gold standard it once was in pitcher evaluation, it may still hold sway with voters. For the latter concern, it’s not that Eovaldi doesn’t strike guys out. He’s at an above average 24.3 percent strikeout rate after all. However, that mark is only good for 11th in the AL and falls far short of the eye-popping rates for guys like Cole, Robbie Ray and Dylan Cease.
With a little more than a month left of the season, there’s still plenty of time for things to change and the AL Cy Young Award race still seems up in the air to some degree, especially since there are more than a few legitimate contenders. As one of them, Eovaldi will more than likely receive some votes for the award at the very least and, if everything goes his way in September, he could even win it all.