Nathan Eovaldi hasn’t pitched in a major league game since April 17, and he won’t until sometime after the All-Star break, but this week, before even beginning a rehab assignment, he’s been cast as a potential solution for one of the Red Sox’s biggest weaknesses: their bullpen. On Tuesday, in the aftermath of the team’s drubbing by the Yankees in the two-game London Series — during which that bullpen was torched for 21 runs and 23 hits in 12.1 innings — manager Alex Cora and president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski announced plans to use Eovaldi as their closer, a job the 29-year-old righty has never held before.
Eovaldi, who is recovering from arthroscopic surgery to remove loose bodies in his right elbow, struggled with his command and control while making just four starts in April, getting hit to the tune of a 6.00 ERA and 7.12 FIP. That comes after last year’s strong rebound from his second Tommy John surgery, during which he threw 111 innings with a 3.81 ERA, 3.60 FIP, and 2.2 WAR. Integrating a relatively new cut fastball into his arsenal, he set career bests with a 22.2% strikeout rate and 4.4% walk rate. As Jeff Sullivan pointed out last November, his penchant for pounding the strike zone with such precision is rare among pitchers with such high velocity — and oh, can he bring it. According to Pitch Info, his average fastball velo of 97.4 was tied for third among all starters with at least 50 innings.
Eovaldi has rarely pitched out of the bullpen during his eight-year major league career, not only never notching a save in eight regular season relief appearances — four with the Dodgers as a rookie in 2011, three with the Yankees in an exile from the rotation in 2016, and one last year — but never even pitching in a save situation.
That said, he shined amid his crash course in high-leverage relief work last October, making four appearances during Boston’s championship run, two of them in save situations and one in extra innings. He threw 1.1 scoreless innings in front of Craig Kimbrel in the ALCS Game 5 clincher against the Astros, two days after making a strong six-inning start, then added scoreless innings in Games 1 and 2 of the World Series against the Dodgers, and pitched the final six innings of the 18-inning epic Game 3, taking the loss when he served up a solo homer to Max Muncy but winning the hearts of New England for his gutsy, 97-pitch effort. That was the only earned run he allowed in 9.1 relief innings; he yielded four hits and walked one while striking out seven.
“He’s a guy that we love,” said Dombrowski as the Red Sox were closing in on re-signing Eovaldi via a four-year, $68 million deal in December.
By targeting a bullpen role, Eovaldi can forgo the extra weeks it takes to build to a starter’s pitch count and address a more acute need. Given that they were already more than $30 million above the Competitive Balance Tax threshold, the Red Sox chose not to spend significantly on bullpen help to replace Kimbrel and Joe Kelly, both of whom departed in free agency. But by relying upon in-house options — and choosing to go with the dreaded “closer by committee” instead of anointing a successor to Kimbrel — they’ve paid dearly for that decision. Their bullpen entered Wednesday ranked fifth in the AL in FIP (4.17) but eighth in ERA (4.44). While they own the league’s highest strikeout rate (27.4%), they also have the fourth-highest walk rate; their 1.25 home runs allowed per nine, for as gaudy as it is, is sixth-best. The Sox have lost seven games they led after seven innings, tied with the Mariners for the major league high, while their 17 blown saves are an AL high. Sunday’s debacle, in which Marcus Walden, Matt Barnes, and Josh Taylor blew a 4-2 lead by combining to allow nine seventh-inning runs, looms large; the Sox left London trailing the Yankees by 11 games instead of nine. At 45-40, they’re now 10 back in the AL East, and 1.5 out of the second Wild Card spot, with playoff odds of 58.6%, down about 20 points from a month ago.
Six different Red Sox pitchers have notched saves, with Ryan Brasier (seven), Barnes (four),and Brandon Workman (three) the only players with more than one. Brasier notched six of those saves in a three-week span in April, but his overall performance (3.41 ERA, 4.73 FIP, 1.57 HR/9) has been uneven. Barnes owns a healthy 2.86 FIP but has been seared by a .373 BABIP en route to a 4.93 ERA. His six blown saves are tied for the major league lead, though to be fair, only two have come in the ninth inning, when Cora intended him to close the game out, as opposed to the seventh or eighth, when he was simply caught holding the bag while giving up the lead. Workman has numbers you might expect from a closer (1.70 ERA, 2.89 FIP, 35.8% strikeout rate) but has been beset by a 17.6% walk rate, the highest in the AL among pitchers with at least 20 innings.
So yes, the Sox clearly need bullpen help. Eovaldi seems like a solution worth trying, in part because when healthy his velocity should play up even higher. Per Brooks Baseball, his fastball averaged 99.1 mph in his four October relief appearances, and 100.3 if you exclude the six-inning one. He was clocked as high as 102.2 mph in his appearance against Houston, though via Statcast (which uses a different starting point for its measurements) it was “only” 101.6 mph on this strikeout of Alex Bregman:
Here’s 101.1 (Statcast’s measurement) against Justin Turner in the 12th inning of Game 3:
Still, questions abound. How quickly can Eovaldi return? How well can he withstand pitching back-to-back days? How will he simplify his arsenal (four-seamer, cutter, splitter, curve, and slider) in a relief role? Will he help the team more in that capacity than by joining a rotation in which two of the front four (Eduardo Rodriguez and Rick Porcello) have ERAs in the vicinity of 5.00, and in which five other fifth starters have combined for a 6.57 ERA and 4.53 FIP while averaging about 3.1 innings per turn?
Even if Eovaldi returns on the day the All-Star break ends — which seems unlikely given that he hasn’t begun a rehab assignment — the Red Sox will have less than three weeks to get preliminary answers to those questions before the July 31 trade deadline arrives. It adds up to a lot of pressure to put on an injured player about to enter an unfamiliar role, and while the ingredients for it to work are there, it’s not hard to see how this can backfire.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.