Imagine something you don’t like. Going to the dentist, stubbing your toe, stepping on a Lego, eating vegetables. Whatever your proverbial poison, just imagine it. Now imagine that you could get really good at avoiding said thing. That’s right, your teeth clean themselves, your toes are impervious to plastic and you figure out how to get all plant-based nutrients from fruits alone.
If you were a pitcher in MLB, it would stand to reason that you might consider allowing free passes to be a potential answer to the exercise above. Walks let hitters get on base and pitchers definitely don’t like letting that happen. Nathan Eovaldi is a pitcher for the Red Sox, and while we can’t say allowing walks is his greatest pet peeve, we can safely assume he’s at least not a big fan of free passes. Luckily for Eovaldi, he is very good at avoiding them and doing so can only yield positive results, unlike those of you hiding from the dentist or skipping out on leafy greens.
Eovaldi has been good at limiting his walk numbers for a while now. He has a career walk rate of 6.8% and other than a pretty rough 2019 and his first season (2011), he’s always kept that mark at least below nine percent. However, aside from that 2019 season, since 2018, he’s been on an entirely different level. During that 2018 campaign, he set a career-low for a 162-game season with a 4.4 percent walk rate. In the shortened 2020 season, he bested that 2018 number with a 3.5 percent walk rate, which would have ranked fourth in MLB among qualified starters if he had logged enough innings.
Last year, across a more regular 182 1⁄3 innings (he threw 48 1⁄3 in the shortened 2020 campaign), Eovaldi’s walk rate rose, but to just 4.6 percent, a number that led all qualified starters in baseball. That might seem like the high-water mark (or low-water mark, technically speaking, I suppose), but in his first five starts of 2022, the 32-year-old right-hander is walking batters at an even more incredible pace, with a microscopic 2.6 percent walk rate.
Now, that is somehow “only” in the 93rd percentile in MLB and has him ranked sixth among qualified pitchers prior to games on Thursday, but something tells me a few of the guys currently ahead of him may stumble. For example, as good as Kevin Gausman has become, a zero percent walk rate seems unlikely to hold. But the point here is that Eovaldi is one of the elite avoiders of walks in baseball, and he’s seemingly only getting better.
His walk avoidance has been particularly strong during his last two starts, which have shown that Eovaldi more than deserves his ace status on the Red Sox’s rotation and in MLB overall. He didn’t issue a single walk across 14 combined innings while striking out 13 total batters in those starts against Toronto and Baltimore, while also allowing only two earned runs. Of course, he only walked a single batter in each of his first three starts, so it’s not like his walk rate was embarrassing before those last two outings.
As he’s been keeping the walks to a minimum, Eovaldi has also upped his strikeout work, a lethal development for anyone facing him. His strikeout rate sits at 28.1 percent right now, which would be a career-best if it holds and has helped fuel a massive 25.4 percent gap between his strikeout rate and his walk rate. If you’re wondering, that’s the eight-best gap between the two metrics among qualified starters.
With his strikeouts rising and his walks continuing to plummet, Eovaldi has gotten off to a pretty strong start to the season despite less home run luck than he had a year ago. In 2021, he allowed 0.74 home runs per nine innings and wasn’t even tagged for one until May 22. In fact, Eovaldi’s dark horse Cy Young candidacy a year ago was built primarily on his low rates of home runs and walks allowed. Unfortunately, batters have squared up the ball a bit better against him this year, with Eovaldi already the victim of seven home runs, which is nearly half as many as he allowed all of last season (15). Eovaldi’s control has also helped him mask some less-than-stellar batted ball numbers, with his average exit velocity allowed, hard hit rate allowed and barrel rate allowed all in the 25th percentile or worse in MLB. Those numbers are what are dragging down some of his expected metrics, particularly his pretty mediocre xwOBA (.328), although his xFIP is nearly in line with his sterling ERA (2.60 and 2.51, respectively).
While researching for this piece, I noticed that as Eovaldi has continued his quest to walk as few batters as possible over the last few years, he’s also started to lean more and more on his curveball. He’s throwing it 23 percent of the time this year, which is up from 18.8 percent last year, which was up from 17 percent the year before and 17.5 percent the year before that. Prior to those seasons, Eovaldi never threw his curve more than 10 percent of the time; now it’s one of his favorite pitches. In fact, other than his blazing fastball (still averaging 97 miles per hour on that one), Eovaldi’s most thrown pitch has been his curve the last two seasons. He has good reason to trust the pitch. Just this year, it is the second-most valuable hook in baseball behind Corbin Burnes’ own curveball. Whether there is any connection between Eovaldi’s shrinking walk rates and the increased curve usage is unclear (and probably a bit coincidental), but it’s still worth noting.
Eovaldi will be making his sixth start of the season tonight against the Chicago White Sox. Although we can’t expect him to put up another seven innings of shutout baseball like he did in his last start, it seems awfully likely that whatever happens won’t include a ton of walks from the Red Sox’s ace.