2014 Marlins Keys to Success: Nathan Eovaldi

Marc Serota

Nathan Eovaldi returns to this spot again after being a key to success last year. He had a breakout campaign that included faster fastballs and similar other problems, and the Marlins would like to see how he develops again in 2014.

The Miami Marlins have keys to success in 2014, and as mentioned before, success in this season will have nothing to do with wins and losses in 2014 but rather with the development of some of their promising young talents into core pieces. One of those young talents is Nathan Eovaldi, who recovered from a preseason shoulder injury to put up a surprisingly strong campaign on the back of what became one of the best fastballs in baseball. At the same time, while Eovaldi certainly excelled last year, he continued to display many of the same problems that he always faced and failed to improve upon them.

Heading into the 2014 season, Eovaldi's ceiling as a pitcher has certainly increased; he now holds the distinction of being the only other starter besides Jose Fernandez who even has a remote chance of being elite. But with so much work ahead of him to reach that lofty status, where will Eovaldi need to improve?

Why is Eovaldi a Key to Success?

Eovaldi is critical to the future of the Miami Marlins because there is no other current starter with as high a ceiling as his without the name Jose Fernandez. The reigning National League Rookie of the Year is a powerhouse and has a bright future ahead of him if all goes according to plan. The ceiling on him is sky-high and growing higher. But aside from Fernandez, the trio of young Marlins starters from last season each looked significantly flawed. Eovaldi and Jacob Turner had some prospect pedigree, but neither looked like they had good enough control or strikeout stuff to become better than mediocre. Henderson Alvarez looked like he was who he was, a ground-ball pitcher with bad home run problems.

But while Alvarez had the better season overall, Eovaldi separated himself from that pack by displaying his impressive fastball. That heater was the fastest in the game among pitchers who threw at least 100 innings last year. Very few pitchers behind him on that list ended up being bums; the next five guys on the list include a proven ace (Stephen Strasburg) and three other up-and-coming aces (Matt Harvey, Gerrit Cole, and Fernandez). Only four of the top 20 pitchers in velocity had worse performances than Eovaldi last season. In short, starters who regularly touch this velocity are usually not scrubs.

If Eovaldi can continue this success with the fastball, the Marlins could have a very important mid-rotation starter on their hands to complement Fernandez and the litany of potential pitching prospects on the way up. By the time, they all eventually arrive and settle into the majors, Eovaldi could be a key part of a fearsome rotation.

Obstacles

The problem is that Eovaldi's only measure of improvement last year was with the fastball. His secondary stuff is still subpar and not often used, as pointed out here by Brad Johnson of RotoGraphs.

As you can see from the situational data, there are some trends in his pitch usage. He throws an occasional change-up against lefties, but he obviously doesn’t have much feel for the pitch. He also peppers in the occasional curve ball while reserving the slider for strikeouts. Against right-handers, Eovaldi pockets the change-up entirely and generally sticks to a fastball-slider repertoire. Against both types of batter, Eovaldi throws almost exclusively fastballs when he falls behind in the count.

Eovaldi's dependence on the fastball and lack of effective secondary pitches sets a ceiling on his potentially elite fastball, because his repertoire can become predictable. That leaves Eovaldi exposed, particularly against left-handed hitters. For his career, Eovaldi has walked 11 percent of his lefties faced and owns a career .340 wOBA against versus lefties, as opposed to a reasonable 8.0 percent walk rate and .297 wOBA versus righties.

Eovaldi needs to get a handle on his platoon situation in order to continue to be a success in the league, and in order to do that, he has to improve on more than just his fastball. That will allow him to get more strikeouts and avoid being useless versus lefties.

Prognosis

The Marlins are going into a second full year with Nathan Eovaldi, and they should be hoping for a slate of good health. In each of the last two years, Eovaldi has not made it past 120 Major League innings, so Miami would like to see how he performs and holds up over a full year and 180-plus innings. Can he repeat last year's fortune on home runs or make another step, or will he stagnate with his secondary pitches?

Most systems are expecting an ERA from 3.50 to 4.00 for the 2014 season. The Marlins would be very happy with those results, but the expectation for potentially more is what makes him the key to the team's success next year.

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