Welcome to the annual Over The Monster One Big Question season preview series. Over the next 40(ish) days, we will be running through every player on the Boston Red Sox 40-man roster and identifying a key question for them pertaining to the coming season. We will go through the roster in alphabetical order. For the most part, these will run Monday through Friday every week running up to the week before Opening Day, at least as things are scheduled right now. Obviously, the lockout may change the timing of the season, and it also means we will likely see more additions of new faces. If need be, we will add some weekend posts to fit any and all additions to the 40-man before Opening Day. You can catch up with every post by following this link. With that, today we cover Nathan Eovaldi.
The Question: Can Nathan Eovaldi once again be in the Cy Young conversation in 2022?
On December 6, 2018, Nathan Eovaldi returned to the Red Sox after his heroic postseason run a couple months prior on a four-year, $68M contract. The contract breakdown was simple, $17 million per season through 2022. The contract, however, was met with skepticism amongst fans. Sure, the fans were thankful for what Eovaldi did after the July mid-season trade from the Tampa Bay Rays, and the lore he crafted in the playoffs, but many fans still felt that kind of money was an overpayment and reactionary by the front office, ignoring some underlying issues with Eovaldi, most notably his injury history, in the afterglow of an all-time great season.
Eovaldi, like most of the 2019 Red Sox team, was a bit of a letdown. He pitched to a 6.00 ERA in his first four starts before once again seeing time on the injured list due to a loose body in his pitching elbow. The righty had surgery to fix the bone fragments in his elbow and did not return until that July. Juggling Eovaldi around between starter and reliever proved to be detrimental to his overall 2019 season, and ultimately he finished that year having pitched 67 2⁄3 innings with a 5.99 ERA, 4.96 xERA, 5.90 FIP, and a 4.89 xFIP.
The 2020 season, well, we all know what happened during the 2020 season for the Red Sox. To say the 2020 season was a disappointment is putting it nicely. For Eovaldi, the 2020 season was a jumping-off point, the true emergence of “Nasty Nate.” It was a season where he seemingly began to turn a corner back to 2018, not just in performance, but in overall health. Eovaldi finished the shortened 2020 season having pitched 48 1⁄3 innings, a 3.72 ERA, 4.16 xERA, 3.87 FIP, and a 3.32 xFIP. Simply put, Eovaldi was the MVP of the 2020 Red Sox starting rotation, which is not a high bar to clear but still of note.
The big question for Eovaldi has always truly been about health. When healthy, he has almost always been darn good, and has always possessed an impressive repertoire of pitches. His four-seamer is the definition of electric, some “easy cheese,” as Dennis Eckersley would call it, regularly touching triple digits with his velocity. Unlike some starters that get high strikeout rates with their power fastball, Eovaldi does not as much, deciding to utilize his secondary pitches more often than other power pitchers. Those secondaries include a slider, cutter, curveball, and a splitter.
What makes Eovaldi particularly effective when he’s on his game is that he can throw a true mix of five pitches, and was a rarity in 2021 in that he threw five different pitches all at a rate higher of 10 percent or higher. Having such an impressive pitch mix also gives Eovaldi the opportunity to do his best to fool hitters, having them guess at the plate, and producing weak contact on his pitches.
Eovaldi stayed healthy for the 2021 season, and it was the first time since 2015 that he thrown more than 150 innings, and if you include postseason innings it’s the first time in his career he eclipsed the 200-inning mark. A healthy and confident Eovaldi is a Cy Young contender, which we saw first-hand when the veteran finished fourth in the voting last season. And not to throw shade at Lance Lynn, but Eovaldi had a really solid case for finishing in the top three and being an official finalist.
Eovaldi finished the 2021 season throwing 182 1⁄3 innings, with a 3.75 ERA, 3.37 xERA, 2.79 FIP, 3.48 xFIP, 5.6 fWAR and a 4.6 rWAR. His ability to induce weak contact limited him to allowing only 0.74 homers per nine innings, while his excellent command of the strike zone kept his walk rate below two per nine innings while striking out over a batter per inning. Eovaldi’s 5.6 fWAR was also the best amongst American League starters, finishing only behind Brewers starter Corbin Burns and Phillies Starter Zack Wheeler for MLB as a whole. Eovaldi also finished the 2021 season with the best FIP in the American League. So yeah, he was kind of really good in 2021.
You’ve read it all, and it’s really quite simple. If Nathan Eovaldi can stay healthy, there is absolutely no reason he cannot replicate, or even improve on his 2021 season. Nathan Eovaldi was one of the best pitchers in baseball in 2021, and that contract he signed in the offseason of 2018 is now a steal. The reigning Cy Young winner, Robbie Ray, who is only two years Eovaldi’s junior, turned his impressive 2021 season into a five-year, $115 million contract with the Seattle Mariners. Given the pitch mix we talked about above along with his ability to both throw strikes at a consistent rate while also inducing weak contact indicates that he can very well put himself back into that Cy Young competition again in 2022 and try to lead Boston back to October.