The Current Key for Nathan Eovaldi by Jeff Sullivan March 2, 2015 It’s a fascinating and volatile starting rotation in New York. CC Sabathia’s been awesome before, but he’s got injury questions. Same goes for Masahiro Tanaka. Same goes for Michael Pineda. Same, to some extent, goes for Ivan Nova. Nathan Eovaldi has fewer of the injury questions. Just last year he was an out shy of 200 innings. But Eovaldi’s still trying to get close to his ceiling. The upside for the other guys comes from their health. Eovaldi’s upside is somewhere in his arm. And the Yankees, and Larry Rothschild, are committed to bringing that upside out into daylight. The current mission: polish Eovaldi’s third strikeout pitch. Before I get any deeper, I’d like to acknowledge Matt Tobin, who got me back thinking about Eovaldi in the first place. I want to talk some about the stuff we know he has, and I want to talk some about the pitch he might soon have. It’s the pitch that, very sincerely, might make all the difference. You know about Eovaldi’s fastball. You probably know about his slider, and you might know about his curveball. He likes the fastball the most, and the slider has been the putaway pitch. It’s been a fairly predictable pattern of things, and Eovaldi has felt like hitters have sat on his heater because they haven’t been too worried about the alternatives. It’s unquestionably weird to see that, a season ago, Eovaldi allowed 223 hits. Even with all the noise that goes into that statistic, it’s hard to give up 223 hits as a starting pitcher and believe that you did your job well. As has become the recent norm, I ran through some pitch-comp calculations for Eovaldi. I’m going to go quicker through this, but I can tell you Eovaldi doesn’t have a single extraordinary pitch. By that I mean, his pitches have some pretty close comps. As much as it seems like his fastball is insane, five other right-handed starters threw fastballs last year with a comp rating no greater than 1.0. The best comp is Gerrit Cole’s fastball. It’s almost a dead match. The other four: Chris Archer, Wily Peralta, Carlos Carrasco, and Joe Kelly. Their fastballs averaged 15% whiffs per swing; Eovaldi came in at 13%. It’s a live fastball, but it’s not a weapon on its own. Hitters can handle velocity. Eovaldi’s slider has even more close comps. Tied for the closest: Miles Mikolas and Dustin McGowan. Just beyond them, Bud Norris and Brandon Morrow. Eovaldi’s slider is a weapon, and it did apparently take a step forward a season ago. What it isn’t is a good-enough pitch against lefties, especially from Eovaldi’s arm angle and position on the rubber. This is why Eovaldi remains a work in progress. And the curveball is a good match for Phil Hughes‘ curveball. Also Jason Hammel and Odrisamer Despaigne. While Eovaldi isn’t afraid of his curve, he doesn’t use it with a lot of confidence in putaway counts. He threw it just 9% of the time with two strikes, and he’s gone on record as saying he’d prefer it early in the count, to steal a strike. Given that Eovaldi’s a starter, you feel like something’s missing. He was never able to develop much of a change. Which brings us to the splitter. Or the split-change, or whatever you want to call it. From Brendan Kuty: Eovaldi, under Rothschild’s guidance, is hoping his splitter can become a third strikeout pitch — beside his heater and slider. […] “I started working on it last year,” he said, “the last two games of the season. I was throwing it out there quite a bit. I was just, it was just a new pitch and I took it into the bullpen. It’s just a comfort pitch. It felt good for me.” Eovaldi had trouble finding a changeup. Down the stretch in 2014, his pitching coach got him thinking about a splitter grip instead. The pitch found its way into a few games. It isn’t easy to pinpoint where things shifted, but taking a look at Brooks Baseball, they have Eovaldi throwing zero changeups between 8/20 – 9/6, and 19 changeups over the remainder. So let’s focus there. From Texas Leaguers, you can see the pitch show up: There’s a new little blob, presumably representing the splitter. And though the sample sizes are so, so small, these location maps give an idea of why this was an encouraging development. At first, Eovaldi’s changeups earlier in the year. Then, the locations of his splitters. As a rule of thumb, you want to keep the offspeed pitches down, especially if you’re a pitcher who likes to keep his fastball down. Through early September last season, Eovaldi threw 65% of his changeups in the lower third or below, and 43% of his changeups low and out of the zone. Once he folded in the splitter, Eovaldi threw 17 of 19 in the lower third or below, and 16 of 19 low and out of the zone. Again, small sample! Incredibly small sample. But it shows that Eovaldi didn’t struggle too much keeping the splitter at or below the knees. He had a decent-enough feel for the pitch, and it happened fast. The downside of his splitter wasn’t a hanging pitch that could get clobbered — the downside was a ball in the dirt. Here are some examples. I wouldn’t say Eovaldi had great command of the split, but these capture the idea: Something you might notice from those .gifs: 89, 89, 90. Both tail and diving action. Of course, a pitcher with an arm like Eovaldi’s is going to be able to generate a pretty crazy offspeed pitch, and Eovaldi’s splitters, according to Brooks Baseball, averaged an even 90 miles per hour as measured at 55 feet away from home plate. That’s a boost from his average changeup. Here are the fastest offspeed pitches thrown by righty starters in 2014: Felix Hernandez changeup, 89.9mph Henderson Alvarez changeup, 89.9 Carlos Carrasco split-change, 89.5 Jose Fernandez changeup, 89.3 Zack Wheeler changeup, 89.2 Eovaldi would rank right among them. And while a pitch’s effectiveness is based on a lot more than just how fast it goes, higher velocities mean greater margins of error, and what was observed toward the end was that Eovaldi was, at the very least, able to keep his splitter down. With just a little refinement, the splitter would become a pitch worth worrying about for both righties and lefties, and then that also makes the other three pitches better. Eovaldi is like a lot of other guys, in that he’s spending spring training trying to polish an offspeed pitch into something more consistent. Because it’s such a common project, nothing can be taken for granted, but one difference is that Eovaldi developed some confidence in this very weapon toward the end of last September, so he isn’t starting from scratch. Down the stretch last year, there was real reason to be encouraged by Eovaldi’s development. Now this could well be the key to unlocking Eovaldi’s enormous potential. Hitters don’t have to live in fear of the splitter. They just need to know it’s an option. Larry Rothschild wants to make sure the pitch is an option.