Here at Fish Stripes, we are obsessed with finding out what makes Miami Marlins starter Nathan Eovaldi tick. Last season, his fastball upped a few ticks on the radar gun and turned him from a fringe starter prospect with OK numbers to someone who could break out at any moment. We've (really, I've) been on that case for the past year, as I watched his fastball velocity stay strong throughout the 2013 season. Kevin Ruprecht of SB Nation's Beyond the Box Score just noticed it. Jonah Keri of Grantland mentioned it as well before the regular season.
Like [Andrew Cashner’s], Eovaldi’s blazing fastball hasn’t yet translated into big strikeout rates, but his strike throwing is improving, and there’s enough life on his pitches to produce lots of harmless contact, especially in tandem with Marlins Park’s pitcher-friendly dimensions. Now 24 years old, he’ll set career highs in starts and innings pitched this year (barring injury), and with 260⅓ MLB innings under his belt, he could be a prime candidate to translate early career experience into better results.
You figured that once Eovaldi found out how to throw his slider and/or other offspeed offerings for strikes and get hitters to swing and miss, he would finally figure out the trick of the strikeout and be a dominant starter.
For two starts thus far this season, Eovaldi has indeed been dominant. He has a respectable 3.46 ERA through 13 innings, but that masks an overwhelmingly strong peripheral performance. Eovaldi has 14 strikeouts in those 13 innings, and he has only walked one batter (with one hit batsmen as well) in that time frame. He is posting a 2.58 FIP that is not that far-feteched compared to his home run-neutral numbers; his xFIP and SIERA are not that far above the FIP thanks to a 52.8 percent ground ball rate.
Through two starts, with all the small sample size caveats of the early season, it looks like Eovaldi is beginning to "figure it out." I wanted to find out just how he was doing this, and whether it had to do with more swings and misses from his excellent fastball or newly improved slider. I traipsed over to Brooks Baseball to check out his player card, and what I found was not what I expected at all. Eovaldi is still throwing the fastball at close to the same rate, though he dropped that overwhelming 70-plus percent fastball rate down to 66 percent. The slider has been the most often-used secondary pitch, as he has barely attempted the curve or changeup. On those 53 sliders thrown, he was inducing just a 29.6 percent whiff rate on an almost identical swing rate to last season (51 percent versus close to 50 percent in 2013). That whiff rate was actually down from last year's 33.2 percent mark.
So Eovaldi's two-start success seems to have nothing to do with his slider. So I turned my attention to the fastball, figuring that he was fooling hitters more often with the pitch. That was not the case either; Eovaldi's fastball has been swung on and missed in 14 percent of hacks, once again down from 15.6 percent last season.
So where are all these new strikeouts coming? The answer was in the fastball, unsurprisingly, but in a different part of the fastball. Eovaldi had so far been utilizing, of all things, control over a wild 96.7 mph pitch.
Eovaldi's fastball in 2013 seemed better controlled, as he posted a 1.6 balls-to-called strike ratio. This year, he has upped the ante in controlling the pitch, as he currently boasts a 1.1 balls-to-called strike ratio on the pitch. Eovaldi has taken his approach of pounding the strike zone last season and stretched it further; according to Pitch F/X, 59.4 percent of his pitches have landed in a traditional strike zone. Last year, he was among the top 20 in zone rate with a 53.8 percent mark, but this is on another level.
For a guy who has overpowering stuff, you would expect more fooling of hitters, but Eovaldi has opted for a different approach. He is trying to get ahead in counts first and foremost and stay there. Out of the 52 batters he has faced thus far this season, he has started 30 of them on an 0-1 count, and 15 of those 30 have progressed to an 0-2 count. Last year, he started off half of his batters on 0-1 counts, and another 40 percent of those hitters went to 0-2 counts. Both those rates are up this season, and it is really contributing to his amount of strikes, if not swinging ones.
In an odd way, it is reminiscent of another pitcher with whom Marlins fans are familiar. Ricky Nolasco never had overpowering, dominant stuff, and his fastball was often considered his worst pitch by a large margin. But if there was one thing he did when he was effective, it was stay in the strike zone. He pounded the zone for a 56.7 percent rate in 2008, his career-best season and the first in which he was a major player in the Marlins rotation. His zone rate declined slowly since that time, but he remained effective in getting strikeouts until 2011, when he essentially switched styles to avoid getting banged up by the home run. Nolasco knew his fastball was too weak a pitch to induce poor contact, so he began trying to fool hitters and stay away from the strike zone.
Eovaldi has the opposite problem of Nolasco: it is his breaking stuff that is weak. His fastball has been dominant for the last year, and he has been able to avoid homers almost precisely because of the velocity of the pitch. Last year, batters hit .283 with a .099 ISO on the fastball; this season, those numbers are at .273 and .065 respectively. Because of that weak contact, Eovaldi can live in the strike zone and not suffer as many consequences as other pitchers with average stuff.
It is early in the season, but Eovaldi and the Marlins may have stumbled upon the right formula for Captain EO. If he can keep working the strike zone and getting ahead, he may never have to truly learn a fantastic out pitch. At the very least, this approach will limit walks to a bare minimum, and it may do wonders to pump his strikeout rate as well.