Some of the weakest bonds in existence are those between fans and their favorite teams’ players. Those relationships are much like the concept of momentum in sports: valid and real, until the next event. Fans love players until they dislike them, and fans hate players until they can cheer them. Everything is superficial. Teams only like fans because of their money. Fans only like players because of their success. Rare is the fan who’s willing to be patient; affection lasts only right up to a slump.
Nathan Eovaldi is a hero in Boston. He’s a hero because of what he did in the playoffs, and he was so sensational he’s remembered most fondly for how he pitched in a loss. Now, granted, the World Series is permanent, so it can never be taken away. Eovaldi was a part of that winning roster. But as the future goes, nothing’s forever. Red Sox fans could turn on Eovaldi. Any fans could turn on anyone. That’s just a part of the experience. So much of how we feel about sports carries an unwritten “for now.”
But for the next few months, there are no games. There are no opportunities for performance to slide. After the World Series, Eovaldi became a free agent, pursued by at least half the league. On Thursday, Eovaldi has agreed to re-sign with the Red Sox, for four years and $67.5 million. In so doing, Eovaldi only further lifted his local status. He was already considered a hero. Now he’s a hero who didn’t want to leave. What will happen in 2019 is very much up in the air, yet 2018 is what dreams are made of.
The first thing you learn about Eovaldi is that he starred in October. The second thing you learn about Eovaldi is that he throws super hard. The third thing you learn about Eovaldi, probably, is that he’s had Tommy John surgery on his elbow two times. There’s a short list of pitchers who’ve come back to have real, meaningful success after two Tommy Johns. Chris Capuano is one, having pitched until he was 37. Jason Frasor also pitched until he was 37. Joakim Soria is still pitching and pitching well, in his mid-30s. This isn’t the whole list, but these are some of the bigger successes.
As such, it might be surprising to see Eovaldi reach the terms he did. Last offseason, Tyler Chatwood signed for three years and $38 million as a relatively young free agent with intriguing stuff and two Tommy Johns. It wasn’t clear whether Eovaldi would receive a fourth-year guarantee, but then, compared to Chatwood, he entered free agency as the better pitcher. And his market was just so big it makes sense that at least one team would have to go the extra mile.
Eovaldi was a free agent who appealed to good teams and rebuilding teams alike. He appealed to the biggest markets, and he appealed to more modest markets. Eovaldi won’t turn 29 until the middle of next February. Because he was never going to cost nine figures, he could fit within almost any budget. Teams have been impressed by Eovaldi’s competitiveness, and he’s thought of as a clubhouse role model. And, I mean, there’s the matter of his pitches. Eovaldi’s been blessed with a superhuman arm.
It’s an arm that’s been twice damaged. That much cannot be written off. But Eovaldi routinely runs his fastball up around the triple digits. Even more impressive than that, look at this garbage:
That’s a cutter he threw at 96. Now, sure, that was in the playoffs, and maybe Eovaldi was just feeling the adrenaline. He probably wasn’t feeling so much adrenaline when he pitched for the Rays against the Marlins in July.
Cutter, 96. Eovaldi doesn’t throw *all* of his cutters at 96, but the fact that he can do it at all speaks volumes about his raw talent. It’s one thing to just be able to throw a baseball hard. It’s quite another thing to be able to make your hard pitches move. Eovaldi can throw a high-90s heater, and he can throw a low- to mid-90s cutter that breaks off of it. There’s a lot more to pitching than speed, but at a certain point, speed just becomes overwhelming. When you watch Eovaldi, you don’t really know how he ever gets hit.
I think that drove some of the market. If everything were exactly the same, but if Eovaldi threw five ticks slower, I doubt he gets four years and $67.5 million. The market, as it exists, rewards elite upside more than anything else. There’s an argument to be made teams should focus more on the results, and less on the inputs. Eovaldi hasn’t run obscene strikeout rates. But then, he did just become the best version of himself. He continues to grow, and one can only imagine what he might still become. He doesn’t give hitters that much time to think.
If you want to read more about Eovaldi’s evolution, he was written about here in July. As he’s grown older, he’s changed his fastballs, and he’s aimed his four-seam fastball higher, while incorporating a new cutter. The cutter has blossomed into his standout pitch. And just the other week, taking a look at what Eovaldi is today, I referred to him as a unicorn. I included this plot in that article:
Eovaldi throws extremely hard, and he throws an unusually high rate of strikes. If anything, you’d expect an inverse relationship, but Eovaldi stays mostly in the 90s and he’s constantly working in and around the zone. Few things delight pitching coaches more than velocity with location, and Eovaldi knows how to spot. Among his peer group of starters, he stands out in this way. It suggests that he’s good now, and it suggests he might become even better if he starts spending more time at the edges. The stuff only raises his ceiling.
Of course there are red flags. Some people were worried about Patrick Corbin because he’s had Tommy John once. Eovaldi has had it twice. Should he get injured again, well, there’s no telling if there’s any coming back from that. What’s hard, if not impossible to say, is how much greater his risk is than that of any other pitcher. It’s a terrible thing for anyone to do to their body. Perhaps it actually helps the Red Sox to remember that their payroll is well beyond the competitive-balance-tax threshold. It was beyond it before Eovaldi re-signed. Good and bad contracts only matter in the context of a limited budget, and if the Red Sox are going to out-spend everybody else, then they can afford a large amount of dead money. They can afford the Eovaldi risk more than, say, San Diego.
For now, Eovaldi is healthy, and Eovaldi is good. He’s not great — like Joe Kelly, he’s worse than you’d think anyone who throws 100 has any right to be — but hitters these days are good, too, and there’s nothing wrong with Eovaldi’s profile. He could be a No. 2 starter, but in Boston, he slots in behind Chris Sale, and he slots in behind David Price. He slots in behind Rick Porcello, and he’s there at the back of the rotation with Eduardo Rodriguez. The depth after that gets worse in a hurry — we’re looking at Steven Wright, Hector Velazquez, and Brian Johnson — but Dave Dombrowski will worry about the sixth starter if and when he needs a sixth starter. Now he’s got his five, and he’ll turn his attention to the bullpen. Things are a lot easier when you have lots of money. When you have lots of money, you can re-sign a World Series hero. Boston might not love Eovaldi forever, but few things feel better than extending a honeymoon.
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.