From everything I’ve read, and from everyone I’ve talked to, just about every single baseball team is interested in free-agent Nathan Eovaldi. Very good teams are interested in Eovaldi. Very mediocre teams are interested in Eovaldi. Very bad teams are interested in Eovaldi. There are degrees of interest, sure, and before too long, certain would-be suitors are going to be removed from the hunt. As always, it’ll come down to a limited pool of finalists. But, why is Eovaldi so popular? I guess you don’t have to think back very far.
Eovaldi pitched six times for the Red Sox in the playoffs. He started, he relieved, and one time he relieved with a starter’s workload. Eovaldi wound up getting tagged with the loss in that game, but I want to quickly revisit the final out Eovaldi recorded. With two down in the bottom of the 17th inning of Game 3 of the World Series, Eovaldi struck out Justin Turner on three pitches. They were his 88th, 89th, and 90th pitches of the evening. He had already pitched in Game 1 and Game 2.
The first pitch to Turner:
Fastball, 99. The second pitch to Turner:
Fastball, 98. The third pitch to Turner:
Cutter, 96. Turner is one of the better all-around hitters in the game today, and while I’ll grant that fatigue can be a factor when you’re playing what’s effectively a nighttime doubleheader, Eovaldi would’ve been tired, too, and he made Turner look like you or me. A three-pitch strikeout of anyone is impressive. A three-pitch strikeout of Justin Turner is doubly so.
Even though Eovaldi lost a few minutes later when he gave up a home run to Max Muncy, his effort was still regarded as heroic. The Red Sox couldn’t say enough about how Eovaldi had risen to the occasion. That’s one point in his favor, here — Eovaldi is considered to have an extremely strong work ethic. He wants to win, and he wants to win badly. Then there’s the fact that he still hasn’t turned 29. That’s another thing that makes him widely appealing. And of course, although I’ve kind of buried the lede, Eovaldi throws incredibly hard. We’re all suckers for eye-popping velocity readings. Sometimes Eovaldi can brush against triple digits. That’s a third selling point.
But now I want you to go back and watch those three clips again. If you don’t want to take the 15 seconds, I’ll just spoil the takeaway — all three pitches were located very well. Fastball, outer black. Fastball, up. Cutter, off the plate away. Eovaldi didn’t fluke his way into a three-pitch strikeout. He executed his way into a three-pitch strikeout. And although he doesn’t miss quite as many bats as you might expect of someone with his radar-gun readings, it’s the combination of velocity and strikes that really sets Eovaldi apart.
I saw a rumor this morning that some teams have expressed interest in signing Eovaldi as a closer. But it seems he wants to start. Mostly, he’s been a starter. He just started 21 games in the regular season, and he had one of the highest average fastball velocities in either league. He also threw better than 69% of his pitches for strikes. Eovaldi is constantly on the attack, and his new cutter introduced a different wrinkle. Eovaldi developed into the best pitcher he’s ever been.
I looked at every starter from 2018 who threw at least 50 innings. By average fastball velocity, Eovaldi wound up 2.2 standard deviations higher than the mean. That means he had a z-score of 2.2. And then, by strike rate, Eovaldi wound up 2.3 standard deviations higher than the mean. Miles Mikolas might throw strikes like Eovaldi, but he doesn’t throw as hard. Tyler Glasnow might throw as hard as Eovaldi, but he doesn’t throw as many strikes.
Thanks to Baseball Info Solutions, it’s possible to track this kind of information all the way back to 2002. So I looked at all individual pitcher-seasons with at least 50 innings as a starter. Here’s a table of the highest strike-rate z-scores, given a velocity z-score of at least 2.0:
|Pitcher||Year||Velocity, Z||Strike%, Z|
Similarly, here’s a table of the highest velocity z-scores, given a strike-rate z-score of at least 2.0:
|Pitcher||Year||Velocity, Z||Strike%, Z|
This whole spreadsheet I’m looking at includes more than 3,000 individual pitcher-seasons over the past 17 years. There are only two seasons in which a starter was at least two standard deviations better than the average in both fastball velocity and strike rate: 2013 Danny Salazar, and 2018 Nathan Eovaldi. Salazar threw just 52 major-league innings that year, and the next season his fastball lost a mile and a half. Then, later on, there were injuries. Eovaldi has an established track record of throwing super hard. He also has a track record of throwing strikes, albeit not at the 2018 level. Presumably, the cutter was a big part of that improvement. Eovaldi is healthy, and he’s at his absolute best.
This is an article that calls for a scatter plot, so here are those 3,000+ individual pitcher-seasons, expressed in their two z-scores. Eovaldi’s 2018 data point is highlighted in yellow. (Most of those funny-looking points off to the left are knuckleballers and Jamie Moyer.)
It should go without saying that velocity and strikes aren’t everything. You still have to judge a pitcher by his overall body of work, and velocity and strikes don’t tell you that much about, say, missing bats. Eovaldi has never run an extraordinary strikeout rate. He’s coming off an ERA- of 89, an FIP- of 87, and an xFIP- of 87. But those numbers are good, if short of great, and teams love strike-throwers. Managers love strike-throwers. In some ways, Eovaldi is a lot like Tyler Chatwood, and in some ways, Eovaldi is the opposite of Tyler Chatwood. He throws harder than almost any starter alive, and he commands the baseball. It’s an appealing skillset, hinting at further upside, and an atypical one. No one’s had a season quite like Eovaldi’s 2018.
Chatwood’s is a relevant name to bring up. Last offseason, Chatwood received a lot of analytical hype, and then he signed with the Cubs for three years and $38 million. Chatwood was a guy with good stuff going into his age-28 season. That season, of course, was a nightmare, and he wound up getting bumped from the rotation. It hasn’t gone very well. But while Chatwood could only dream of throwing strikes like Eovaldi has, both pitchers have had two Tommy John surgeries. No matter what Eovaldi’s doctor says about the health of his elbow, that’s certain to factor into forthcoming contract negotiations.
Because of the health history, it’s awful difficult to see Eovaldi getting several years guaranteed on the market. The widespread demand will push the price up, but the way I see it, Eovaldi might also settle for three years, getting about $54 – 60 million. And perhaps the winning bidder will get there by including a fourth-year vesting option for a similar salary, that vests so long as Eovaldi doesn’t finish 2021 on the DL with an elbow injury. We’ve seen some of that language before, and it’s a sensible way for teams to protect themselves while dangling the potential for bigger money. The successful double-TJ cases are few and far between. Eovaldi won’t be able to separate himself from his past.
But he has been able to separate himself from other pitchers. The health history is a legitimate concern, but Nathan Eovaldi was good to go in the most recent year. He threw as hard as he ever has, and in part thanks to an exciting new cutter, he filled up the zone with quality strikes. Starters seldom come with such good stuff, and so many strikes. That’s why Eovaldi is getting so much attention, and that’s why Eovaldi is going to get paid.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.