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Nathan Eovaldi and the need for a changeup

The Miami Marlins are considering moving Nathan Eovaldi to the bullpen because he lacks a tertiary offering against left-handed hitters. But plenty of other successful pitchers have a similar problem, including someone on the Fish right now.

Marc Serota

The rumors surrounding Nathan Eovaldi's difficult 2014 season and the possibility that the Miami Marlins may move Eovaldi to the bullpen may last for some time. Thanks to a season with good peripherals but a bad ERA, due mostly to a problem with BABIP, the Marlins are closing in on the idea of replacing Eovaldi in the rotation with someone internal or an outside addition like free agent James Shields. It is still unlikely at this point, but the MLB.com's Joe Frisaro reports that the Fish are at least considering the idea.

We already discussed why Eovaldi's 2014 season was not so bad. But his flaws continue to be pointed out, and the biggest one is noted here.

If Eovaldi's offspeed pitches improve, there is no question he will remain in the rotation. If not, he could be headed to the bullpen, where he could get by with a fastball and breaking ball. As a starter, he needs at least three pitches to keep hitters off balance.

Eovaldi has no change up

It’s the pitch that is the difference between the men and the boys. With no change up in his arsenal, he’ll never be what he, or the Marlins, want him to be.

Eovaldi does lack a third pitch, as he primarily leans on a superb fastball and a workable slider. But the lack of a third pitch does leave him vulnerable against left-handed hitters, and indeed Eovaldi has exhibited a decent-sized split for his career.

Eovaldi, Career PA K% BB% FIP wOBA Against
Vs. RHH 943 17.6 7.2 3.48 .299
Vs. LHH 1034 15.0 7.9 3.91 .338

Right-handed hitters have hit just .244/.309/.369 against Eovaldi during his career, while lefties have put up a .288/.350/.421 batting line. This is a significant difference and the crux of the argument against Eovaldi as a starter. The idea is that since he lacks a third pitch like a changeup (better against opposite-handed hitters) or curve (mostly neutral), he will never handle left-handers well and will continue to struggle.

Ignore the fact that Eovaldi's strikeout and walk rates are better than they have been, and that includes his work against lefties last season. The premise that pitches cannot succeed without a third pitch against opposite-handed hitters is incorrect. There are many examples of starters who lean on their fastball and primarily one other pitch to get them by. The Marlins, in fact, have a great example.

Alvarez, Career PA K% BB% FIP wOBA Against
Vs. RHH 1023 13.5 4.4 4.01 .301
Vs. LHH 1233 12.1 6.2 4.18 .334

Henderson Alvarez exhibits a similar gap in his platoon splits, and the reason is very similar. Like Eovaldi, Alvarez depends a lot primarily on his fastball. While the changeup was his secondary offering years ago, he began to slowly whittle it out of his rotation. Even this season, with the advent of Alvarez's so-called "power changeup" near the 90 mph mark, he still threw a fastball-like pitch in nearly 65 percent of pitches thrown according to Brooks Baseball, very similar to Eovaldi's levels. For Alvarez's career, lefties have always hit him better, including last season.

That should not surprise anyone. Beyond the lack of a clearly identifiable third pitch, Alvarez has another platoon-based problem: he depends on a sinker. The sinker is a platoon-heavy pitch that works better against same-handed hitters, and Alvarez rarely uses a changeup-style pitch to counteract that effect, depending on what source of pitch classification you use.

Alvarez is not the only pitcher who gets away with a lack of changeups and a large platoon split. I looked back at the starters who threw the most fastballs since 2012 and saw a number of players who were successful throwing few changeups and a lot of heat. Successful Major Leaguers like Lance Lynn, Matt Garza, and Ervin Santana have all made marks in the majors primarily by throwing fastballs and sliders with less work on curveballs and changeups especially. All of those pitchers were qualified starters in the top 30 of pitchers with the most fastballs thrown. In total, there were five starters not including Eovaldi who threw changeups in fewer than 10 percent of their pitches and relied on a curve in at most 10 to 11 percent of their throws. The rest of the way, those pitchers threw fastballs and sliders, and on average, they put up a 4.09 ERA and 3.91 FIP since 2012.

Now, that is a sample of just five guys who threw the most fastballs, and it is also biased to include only pitchers who survived three years in the bigs. But Eovaldi was on that list as well, and it shows one thing. While these pitchers would be better if they had a workable changeup, they are still quality Major Leauge starters with heavy platoon splits. But they survived in the majors without a bullpen move. Eovaldi can as well, and with his improving strikeout and walk rates, there is no reason for Miami to try to put him in the bullpen. He is achieving success, so the Fish should continue to try and eke more of it out of him despite his deficiencies.