The Miami Marlins are banking on the continued improvement from their starting rotation to bring them some success in the 2014 season. Part of that success is definitely tied to the improvement of Jose Fernandez, who is expected to perform at an All-Star level next season, but Miami has two other promising starting pitchers upon whom the club will rely.
One of those players is the Marlins' hardest thrower among their starters. As talented as Fernandez and his 95 mph fastball were in 2013, no Major League starter with more than 100 innings threw as hard as Nathan Eovaldi did on a regular basis last year. Can he continue those hard-throwing ways and develop the other pitches necessary for his success?
Depth Chart: Starting Rotation
Eovaldi boasted an average fastball velocity of 96.1 mph, and that is single-handedly what is garnering him attention heading into the 2014 season. Even with a 3.39 ERA and 3.59 FIP, Eovaldi's statistics never stood out last season. His 17.3 percent strikeout rate was the 91st-ranked rate among the 139 starting pitchers with at least 100 innings pitched last season, and his walk rate was not terribly impressive either at 8.9 percent. Eovaldi's success primarily came from his home run suppression, but he certainly is not the worm-burning ground baller one would expect to allow just seven homers in 106 1/3 innings. When rated by SIERA, a metric that estimates ERA based off of batted ball distribution along with strikeouts and walks, Eovaldi's 4.36 mark ranked 116th among those 139 pitchers. If you correct for the possibly home run anomaly from last season, Eovaldi appears to be a much worse pitcher.
The raw numbers spit in the face of the fact that Eovaldi is still throwing league-best heat and garnering good value out of his fastball. Historically, it is not common to see pitchers who throw as hard as Eovaldi regularly does and struggle on the pitching mound. Just last month, we brought up the ten pitchers with the fastest heaters in the Pitch F/X era with at least 400 innings and evaluated their average results.
The ten pitchers with the best average velocity and at least 400 innings in the Pitch F/X averaged a 3.75 ERA and a 3.58 FIP from 2007 to 2013. Those are numbers the Marlins would be thrilled to see from Eovaldi this season, given that he bested those marks last year primarily with some good fortune on home runs. The strikeout component of those numbers would be expected to rise as well, as those ten pitchers averaged a 22 percentstrikeout rate as a group versus a 8.1 percent walk rate. Eovaldi has matched neither of those marks, but given that the group has managed an average velocity of 94.4 mph, it is not out of this world to believe that Eovaldi could reach that with a fastball touching closer to 95 mph.
Eovaldi would be required to make a leap to reach the requisite strikeout and walk numbers to match those ten best players, but the good news is that his numbers are at least trending in the right direction. Despite the modest strikeout and walk numbers, Eovaldi actually improved on those rom 2012 to 2013. This may have more to do with the fact that he worked more in the strike zone than he did in 2012, as he pushed his percentage of pitches in the strike zone from 53 to 54 percent. But Eovaldi also displayed a decreased contact rate out of the strike zone, so there may be some component of stuff involved as well.
The question is whether he can put that together along with some semblance of secondary or tertiary pitches to create a successful arsenal. His secondary pitches saw a strict decline, as his promising slider did not improve or got worse last season alongside the terrible performance of his curveball. And despite the improved velocity, the fastball failed to increase his swings and misses or hit the strike zone all that more often ether. Watching this aspect of his development may be one of the most intriguing subplots of the 2014 season.
The Marlins are hoping to have Eovaldi land in that in-between zone around where Oliver and ZiPS are projecting him. Those ERA and FIP numbers all appear reasonable given a regression to the mean on his home run totals, but they barely take into account any improvement on the 24-year-old righty's work. The argument for Eovaldi is one based on improvement over his struggles from last year on secondary pitches. If he can display that improvement, a ppppppperfo closer to a 3.75 ERA seems good. But given where we stand on that unknown factor, the projection systems are rightfully taking a conservative view.
What does that conservative view yield? The three systems are projecting a 4.08 ERA that would yield 1.5 WAR in 180 innings. That would be a let-down season compared to 2013, when he put up that level of performance in 106 1/3 innings, but it is an understandable estimate given the large question marks still surrounding Eovaldi's game. He may be the most intriguing Marlins player of the 2014 season.