Nathan Eovaldi: Somehow Still Not Great

Pitching is an enigmatic thing. There are so many aspects to it that it can be difficult to get them straight in one’s head. A thing we all know about it, though, is the faster you throw the better you are. This is what makes Nathan Eovaldi so fascinating and yet so curious. Eovaldi has the fastest average fastball velocity of any starting pitcher in baseball at 95.8 mph. He started against the Nationals on Wednesday and hit 99 mph with his fastball in the third inning. Dude throws hard. And yet, outside of that, he’s not really anything special as a pitcher. In total value Eovaldi is Wade Miley. Miley has an impressive beard, but to paraphrase a great person, an impressive beard does not an impressive season make. The most valuable pitcher in baseball so far is Corey Kluber at 3.0 WAR. Kluber’s average fastball is 93.5 mph, 2.3 mph slower than Eovaldi’s. So clearly fastball velocity isn’t everything.

But why not? The quicker a pitch, the shorter the batter’s reaction time, and we’re talking about removing hundredths of a second. A 95 mph fastball will reach home plate in 0.4 seconds so removing those small fractions of a second you’d think would be problematic for the hitter. And they are problematic. The thing is, they’re not the whole story.

Despite his tremendous velocity, Eovaldi’s fastball has a swing-and-miss rate of 4.5% this season, and that number isn’t far off his career mark of 6.1%. He’s thrown the pitch 606 times in 2015 and batters have missed it just 27 times. That’s not particularly good. For context, batters swing and miss percentage at Kluber’s fastball 18.1% of the time. To be fair, unlike Eovaldi, Kluber’s fastball is his fourth-most-thrown pitch. Also that kind of swinging-strike rate sounds incredible, as in not credible, so maybe that doesn’t provide much context. Let’s look at Clayton Kershaw instead. Kershaw’s fastball is his primary pitch, as in it’s the one he throws the most. This season batters are swinging and missing at it 9.6% of the time, which is above his career rate of 7.6%. But that’s not the big difference between Eovaldi and Kershaw. The big difference between Eovaldi and Kershaw is Kershaw’s slider, which hitters swing and miss at 30% of the darn time. Eovaldi’s slider is a 10.3% pitch. That, friends, is a $200 million difference.

None of that explains, specifically, why Nathan Eovaldi can throw 99 mph in the third inning and still not induce swings and misses. So let’s look at pitch F/X data. Pitches move two ways, horizontally and vertically. The PITCHf/x data shows Eovaldi’s fastball has almost exactly average vertical movement (8.6 inches, relative to the 8.9 -nch average), meaning the pitch “rises” relative to a spinless ball (as opposed to dropping, like a curveball). That’s not especially problematic. What is problematic is the pitch’s horizontal movement. It moves less than average, by about two inches this season. Horizontal movement for a right-hander means arm-side run — i.e. a pitch from a right hander that runs in on a right handed hitter. Eovaldi’s fastball has much less of that than the average fastball, meaning Eovaldi’s fastball is particularly straight.

Straight is hittable. If I gave you unlimited time in a batting cage against 90 mph velocity you would eventually hit it. It might take some time, but you would start to foul tip occasionally and then you’d actually make contact. That’s not to say hitting a 90 mph pitch isn’t hard, it’s to say that hitting a perfectly straight 90 mph ball traveling from a predictable point to a predictable point isn’t easy but it’s learnable. Eovaldi is still a human major-league starting pitcher, so hitting his fastball is not like hitting off a pitching machine, but it’s more like hitting off a pitching machine than most other major-league pitchers, and that makes it quite hittable despite the speed at which it’s thrown.

The plane of the pitch can also be important. I spent the better part of the last hour watching Eovaldi and then watching Lance Lynn pitch. I picked Lynn because he’s been better than Eovaldi, throws lots of fastballs, and gets more swings and misses on them (11.7%) than Eovaldi does. Also alliteration. Who doesn’t love names that start with the same letter? Anyway, I’m not a scout, so take this for what it’s worth, but to my eyes Eovaldi gets much lower in his delivery. This reduces the plane created by throwing from the mound. Imagine a very tall pitcher and a very short pitcher both throwing the ball to home plate. The tall pitcher would throw the ball from a much higher point creating greater angle to his pitch than the short pitcher. Eovaldi is not short (he’s listed at 6-foot-2), but he seems to pitch shorter than he is. In contract, Lynn, who stands 6-foot-5, releases the ball from a much more upright position.

The following graphic supports this observation — or, at least a version of it that might illustrate Eovaldi’s troubles.

Those are Eovaldi’s and Lynn’s release points, respectively. Don’t minds the absolute horizontal and vertical figures for the moment. Those are subject to variable like placement on the rubber, arm mechanics, etc. Rather, just watch for the light blue dots. Those are fastballs. Lynn’s fastball, like all his pitches, is thrown from the same vertical point, while Eovaldi is for some reason throwing his fastball from a slightly lower point than the remainder of this pitches — his curveball, in particular. That’s not definitely a problem. It’s also definitely not not a problem.

In high school, I was a lousy hitter. I tried out for the college team as a pitcher, at which I was decent, but I got cut because the coach said he wouldn’t have a player on the team who couldn’t hit. Years later I joined an adult league and, in preparation, spent my life savings at the batting cage in order to teach myself to hit. Many quarters and blisters later, I realized if I kept my body as still as possible while waiting for the pitch and then swung as flatly as possible I could keep my bat at the same plane as the ball for a long time. This gave me a much larger chance of making solid contact. Rather than having to correctly assess when the pitch would arrive at a given spot I only had to guess the level of the spot and general arrival window. If I could do that, and it turned out I could, I could get many hits. I got many hits!

Eovaldi’s fastball is quite fast, but doesn’t feature much movement. But the way Eovaldi throws his fastball also makes it easier on the batter. The pitch’s lack of movement doesn’t force the batter to do much besides swing slightly sooner than normal, and since we’re talking about fractions of a second we’re not talking about a change major league hitters can’t make. We know they can make it because, despite huge velocity, Nathan Eovaldi isn’t a great pitcher.

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Some Dude
8 years ago

Why doesn’t Joe Kelly show up on the list? I always wonder why he’s not good despite the velocity.

Regina George
8 years ago
Reply to  Some Dude

Stop trying to make Joe Kelly happen.

Some Dude
8 years ago
Reply to  Regina George

Well that’s mean, girl. I’m certainly not, but I don’t get why he’s not on that list of velocities.