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No need to be concerned about Nathan Eovaldi

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Nathan Eovaldi has had some mediocre starts in the last month, but there really is no need for concern for a guy pitching at perhaps his career best.

Should we be worried about Nathan Eovaldi?
Should we be worried about Nathan Eovaldi?
Stephen Dunn

In light of Nathan Eovaldi's most recent struggle of a start versus the Los Angeles Angels, there is growing concern about his recent "slump" and how it is affecting him.

The hard-throwing right-hander isn't sure how to get his career out of this jam, although manager Mike Redmond has a few ideas about keeping the ball down and maintaining composure.

"It's definitely a concern," (manager Mike Redmond) said. "I mean, three innings. That makes it tough to win a game in crunch time, where every start is big and every one of these games is big. It's a missed opportunity for us. We've got to have guys step up and log those innings. It puts a tough toll on our bullpen when we've got to eat up six innings."

Oddly enough, when asked about his arm and how it felt as it relates to the slump, Eovaldi had this to say.

"My arm feels great," Eovaldi said. "It's probably the best I've felt in my career. No issues. It's extremely discouraging and real frustrating. I'm just going through a rough little rut right now, so I have to keep grinding and work through it."

Undoubtedly, most pitchers would probably say something similar, because who would let anyone on that their arm was injured out in the public like that? But it is important to look at the big picture when we consider Eovaldi and note his performance over the course of the year before we overreact to a few games. For example, let's look at two Eovaldi seasons based on the things that pitchers can best control: strikeouts, walks, homers, and for the heck of it, ground ball rate.

Eovaldi, Season K% BB% HR% GB/BIP
Season X 16.7 4.9 1.6 43.6
Season Y 17.3 8.9 1.5 43.8

Which season is the one in which Eovaldi is supposed to be struggling, and which season was his better one? Based on these numbers, you would have to lean towards the better season being Season X. In that one, he has almost identical rates in the other categories, but has cut his walk rate by 45 percent. All other things being equal, you would suspect that Season X was the better one.

Season X is this season, while Season Y is last year, when Eovaldi posted a 3.39 ERA and 3.59 FIP. He dropped his FIP down to 3.30 this year, which sits 25th in all of Major League Baseball among qualified starting pitchers. It is the best FIP on the Marlins' staff, better than even Henderson Alvarez's (3.56, for the record). If we were to measure Eovaldi's performance based solely on the things that pitchers can control, he has been the best starter on the Fish!

But why should we only look at strikeouts, walks, and home runs in evaluating Eovaldi? He has allowed a .313 BABIP, which is above the league average of .295. Why should Eovaldi not get docked for those hits? Sure, pitchers are at fault for balls in play that land for hits. Usually, it means a pitcher made a mistake pitch and was beat by the hitter in some way. But in the long run, it turns out that the rate of balls in play turning into hits or outs is more correlated with your team's defense than an individual pitcher. The BABIP of each pitcher on one season's staff tends to cluster together better than one pitcher's BABIP over multiple seasons, for example.

All of that is to point out what we have heard before; in the Major Leagues, there is very little skill that separates the ability to prevent hits on balls in play. Few if any pitchers are significantly better or worse at this than your average player. Eovaldi has not forgotten how to prevent hits, but rather has run into a bad rut in that department. There should be no expectation for that to continue.

The same goes for the problems he has had this season with sequencing. This year, Eovaldi has been worse with runners on base than with the bases empty, particularly in the home run department. Eight of his 11 home runs allowed have been with runners on base. Otherwise, his strikeout and walk rates indicate similar performances; his xFIP (FIP but corrected for fly ball rate and league average home run rate instead of the player's actual home runs allowed) predicts similar performances in either situation.

But last year, Eovaldi pitched better with runners on base and stranded more runners than he has this season. Did he suddenly forget how to pitch with men on? Or is it more likely that the sequence in which he gives up his hits has been uneven this year? Eovaldi allowed a .262 BABIP with runners on last year, but he owns a .338 mark this season. It is unlikely that, in one year, Eovaldi has completely changed his skill level at a performance marker this random.

If there was a time to be concerned about Eovaldi, it was a month ago. At the end of June, I began talking about Eovaldi's loss of strikeouts after his breakout April, and it continued through July. He had only recorded strikeouts in 13.7 percent of plate appearances, and while the walk rate was still holding strong, his complete inability to find whiffs was getting dire. His 5.07 ERA and declining performance, in that case, was less fluky than in his last three starts. In August, pitching coach Chuck Hernandez apparently worked with Eovaldi to get him to lengthen his stride. Since then, his fastball velocity has jumped again and his slider has leaped in effectiveness; his whiff rate on the pitch is at 48 percent of opponent's swings, up from just 27 percent before this month.

The numbers in August are much more appealing. Yes, he has just a 3.99 ERA thanks to those three bad starts, but he also has a 2.11 FIP thanks to his bump in strikeouts (and not allowing a homer this month). The things that best predict a pitcher's performance going forward are on the upswing for Eovaldi. His pitches have real changes behind them, with an increase in velocity being a real indicator of improving performance. A three-start slump is nothing to be concerned about.