The Miami Marlins needed all the strong pitching performances they could get out of their roster after the season-ending injury to Jose Fernandez in 2014. Early on, there was one other pitcher who appeared primed for a breakout season. In April, not many pitchers were better than Nathan Eovaldi. He started off the year throwing tons of strikeouts by pounding the zone, and his future appeared bright. We already knew about Eovaldi's scary velocity on his fastball, and now that it was coming with strikeouts, he seemed like he might break out in 2014. In April, Eovaldi whiffed 23 percent of batters faced (35 in 38 1/3 innings pitched) and posted strong numbers. His 2.58 ERA and 2.19 FIP were comparable to Fernandez's numbers early on.
Of course, that did not last long. Eovaldi had a bad month of May and from then on, his play had slowly been declining.
As you can see, the ERA and strikeout numbers never reached the heights we saw at the start of the year since May, and Eovaldi struggled to ugly ERA numbers for much of the year. But as we discussed earlier in the season, he also had peripherals that were actually better than last year, when he posted a 3.39 ERA in 106 1/3 innings.
What gives? Was Eovaldi better this year than last season, when he looked like a promising pitcher who might become a part of the next strong Marlins rotation? Much of what went wrong with Eovaldi this season was based on things over which pitchers have less control. Last season, he allowed a .286 BABIP and a 74 percent strand rate. Out of 139 pitchers with at least 100 innings in 2013, those marks were 50th-lowest and 63rd-highest marks. In other words, they were close not too far from the middle of the pack.
Things were expected to be a bit worse in those regards this season, but not this bad. Eovaldi's 65.5 percent strand rate was the second lowest among qualified starting pitchers in 2014. Only Clay Buccholz held runners on base at a worse rate. Eovaldi's .323 BABIP was the fourth-highest in baseball.
Those sorts of numbers tend to normalize towards the league average a lot more from season to season than things like strikeout and walk rates. Rare is the Ricky Nolasco-style pitcher with the low career strand rate, and after just one anomalous season, it is simply too early to give up on Eovaldi's future as a starter.
Photo by Steve Mitchell, USA TODAY Sports
Instead, we should look at the things that were better in Eovaldi's game. He maintained his passable strikeout rate, down slightly to 16.6 percent from 17.3 percent last year. He cut his walk rate to just 5.0 percent, which was likely a product of him ranking fourth in the majors in zone percentage. Only three starters pounded the ball in the strike zone better than Eovaldi, and he can afford to do that a little more thanks to his blazing fastball. The velocity was not as strong as last season's, but he remains among the hardest throwers in the game. According to Pitch F/X classifications, Eovaldi's four-seam fastball was the fourth-fastest in the game, behind only Garrett Richards, Yordani Ventura, and Wily Peralta.
The discussion has mostly surrounded what Eovaldi cannot do, primarily in that he cannot throw a changeup. But many pitchers appear to be missing changeups, and they tend to do decently still. That includes Eovaldi if you use the fielding-independent pitching metrics to determine his value in 2014. According to FanGraphs, Eovaldi's season with a 3.37 FIP in a sturdy 199 2/3 innings was worth three wins. According to Baseball Prospectus, which uses its own fielding-independent Fair Run Average metric, he was worth 1.6 wins. Either way, Eovaldi appeared to be around a league average starter in 2014 if you use the defense-free metrics, and he did so with a lot of innings under his belt. Though there was talk of shifting him to the bullpen and resting him, Eovaldi went the full 33 starts and threw 199 2/3 innings, coming the closest among Marlins starters to 200 innings since Mark Buehrle in 2012.
Eovaldi had a healthy, full season of decent play disguised by poor luck on defense and sequencing. Here is hoping 2015 holds better luck in the future and that Miami does not give up on him too early.