Nathan Eovaldi: A Marlins Optimistic View

Brad Penner-US PRESSWIRE

The Miami Marlins are looking to get meaningful future performances out of a number of young players on their 2013 roster. One of those players is Nathan Eovaldi, and the optimistic view says that he can improve and pull it off.

The Miami Marlins would like a few of their current Marlins youngsters to develop into major leaguers of decent quality. Such major leaguers could then be useful for a future role as a supporting player for the star core of Jose Fernandez and Christian Yelich.

Among the players involved in this potential supporting cast is Nathan Eovaldi, who has an opportunity to become a decent pitcher given enough development time. After all, his tools are evident and the Fish saw enough in him as a 22-year-old working in the majors to acquire him in a trade of a former superstar and franchise icon in Hanley Ramirez. With Eovaldi having significant tools and pedigree, it is not too much of a stretch to see the optimism in his development.

The Optimist's Case

The optimistic case when it comes to Eovaldi is one of projection of his visibly strong tools. Any discussion of Eovaldi begins and ends with his high-level fastball. The pitch already averages an easy 94 mph and encroached on averaging 95 mph last season. The objective findings of his pitch analysis match quite well with the subjective scouting reports of his time in the minors, meaning his fastball velocity is not likely to be any fluke.

It is not difficult to understand the basic concept that a strong fastball leads to strong numbers. In 2012, only six other pitchers with at least 100 innings pitched had fastballs that averaged a better velocity than Eovaldi's. Those six pitchers were, for the most part, very good.

Name FB Vel (mph) ERA FIP
Stephen Strasburg 95.8 3.16 2.82
David Price 95.5 2.56 3.05
Jeff Samardzija 95.1 3.81 3.55
Justin Verlander 94.7 2.64 2.94
Max Scherzer 94.2 3.74 3.27
Matt Moore 94.1 3.81 3.93

There was not a below-average pitcher among the group of high-velocity hurlers, as expected. Three of these pitchers have had multiple seasons under their belt, and each one of those three have turned a corner and become at least a well-above average major league starter. In fact, aside from Eovaldi, you would have to dig down to the 11th-fastest fastball (Edinson Volquez) before you saw a below-average 2012 season in terms of ERA or FIP. Only four of the 18 seasons with average fastballs harder than 93 mph aside from Eovaldi had below-average ERA or FIP in 2012, and only five of the top 20 fastest heaters had such numbers. An extremely hard fastball is an elite tool to have and one that can keep a pitcher squarely in games. One need only look at the decline of the fastball of Josh Johnson to see the effect that just a few miles per hour can do to a pitcher.

But what is even more impressive for Eovaldi is that he did this at age 22. Since 1993, only 87 pitchers have posted seasons with at least 100 innings pitched at age 22, and while Eovaldi's numbers do not stack up well with those pitchers (he is in the bottom 20 in ERA and FIP after adjusting for the league average), the fact that he is a part of that selective group implies a potentially decent future.

And therein lies the essence of the optimistic case for Eovaldi: the tools he has do not match the description of a struggling pitcher. None of the pitchers with worse age-22 seasons than Eovaldi had the elite fastball that he has. The few that did have those sorts of fastballs either have not had the chance to develop (the Marlins' own Henderson Alvarez) or went on to have decent future seasons (the Texas Rangers' Derek Holland, for example). Those who struggled going forward, guys like Jimmy Gobble, Jesse Litsch, Chris Volstad and others, did so because their stuff never started off as well as Eovaldi's. It is his promise that keeps interest in his game alive.

A Historical Comparison

There is no strong Marlins-related historical comparison, but luckily for us, there is a very optimistic comparison that was made earlier this season: Justin Verlander.

So Eovaldi does share some similarities to Verlander, though they are not necessarily tied to control, Verlander evolved to find out how to get swings and misses from hitters, and overnight he became an elite pitcher. Eovaldi has yet to figure out how he will manage that against left-handers, and that is still the barrier between the two. In terms of control and throwing strikes, it does seem as though they are even, perhaps with Eovaldi having the edge over a younger Verlander.

Essentially, if Eovaldi can figure out how to get hitters to miss his pitches from the left side, there is a possibility of him developing into half of what Verlander became. Verlander had a major head start with an extremely good pedigree and polished stuff already, so Eovaldi can only hope to reach part of the heights that Verlander achieved. But that fastball is a good start, and there is some optimism that he can become a good major league starter with just a little more development. There are enough similarities that Marlins fans can dream a little.

There were very clear signs that Eovaldi's and Verlander's fastballs were very similar, as both pitchers throw at around the same velocity. Verlander's issues with control also compare favorably with Eovaldi, as both pitchers threw strikes at a similar ratio in the early portion of their careers.

Verlander, Season Balls Called Strikes B:CS Ratio
2006 1103 480 2.30
2007 1227 534 2.30
2008 1274 548 2.32
2009 1280 686 1.87
2010 1284 696 1.84
2011 1434 786 1.82
2012 1172 577 2.03

It was not a gradual ascent into effectiveness for Verlander. In his first three seasons, he was still raw at finding the strike zone for called strikes consistently. In fact, he was actually worse at pounding the strike zone than Eovaldi has been this season. In 2009, his breakout year, things seemed to click, and at some point leading up to 2009 Verlander became the player we have come to lionize. Since 2009, his rates of called strikes have more or less been similar.

Eovaldi and Verlander both had similar balls-to-called-strike ratios early in their careers, but Verlander woke up and figured it all out by his fourth season and has not looked back since then. If the Marlins afford Eovaldi time, he too could develop something similar to this.

Prognosis

The optimistic viewpoint sees a lot of projection in Eovaldi, and that is where the advantage in this case lies. When a pitcher starts off with a top-10 fastball velocity, good things usually come his way, and that is why Eovaldi is still well-regarded. And because he began at such a young age, it is far more likely that he will develop well given his tools, as the players with comparable numbers in the list of 22-year-olds never had the sort of tools he has.

Looking at Verlander as a comparison point, we can use him to estimate the effectiveness of Eovaldi and his unique set of skills and performance. At age 23, Verlander had a rookie season in which he posted a 3.63 ERA and 4.35 FIP. Take the average of that performance and you get a 3.99 ERA. Make it a tad worse to reflect that Eovaldi is not as good a prospect as Verlander once was and you can easily see a 4.10 ERA for Eovaldi in 2013. That performance would go a long way towards reassuring Marlins fans of some value for the remains of Hanley Ramirez.

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