In the Miami Marlins' last series against the Atlanta Braves, the team featured two pitchers whose primary modus operandi has been attacking the strike zone. Two of them got excellent results, while the third performed decently. Nathan Eovaldi allowed just one run in 6 2/3 innings while striking out six in yesterday's 1-0 loss to the Braves, while Jarred Cosart went seven innings and struck out five in a shutout victory on Saturday.
Combined with Henderson Alvarez, Eovaldi and Cosart appear to be attempting very similar styles of pitching in their time in Miami. The emphasis in the Marlins' organization, headed by pitching coach Chuck Hernandez, is to attack the strike zone consistently and get ground balls ideally. This appears to have been a strategy for some time, so it comes as no surprise that the newcomer Cosart has quickly picked up on the strategy. With Miami through five starts, his zone rate has ballooned to 54.5 percent, which is close to the performances of Eovaldi and Alvarez this season.
In wondering just how good a ground ball artist like Cosart could be if he could just stay in the strike zone, a question popped into my mind: what is the ceiling of these type of pitchers? The Marlins have three guys with very similar rates of contact and strike zone percentages in Alvarez, Eovaldi, and Cosart. But if Miami is aiming to develop zone-pounding ground ballers in the majors, just how far can those pitchers get?
In order to find that out, I took a look at all qualified Major League starters since 2011 and examined a couple of factors about their pitching and saw how other starters performed in strikeouts, walks, and home runs allowed, the three factors that pitchers have the most control over.
This season, Henderson Alvarez has dropped his contact rate down to the lowest of his career, at 84 percent so far. The subsequent increase in strikeouts is one of the reasons why he was an All-Star in 2014. Over the last two years, Nathan Eovaldi's contact rate has been a bit below 84 percent. With the Marlins so far, Jarred Cosart's rate has been at 83.6 percent. It is odd to see all three starters match up so tightly around a contact rate, but each pitcher has the same issue: their secondary stuff fails to miss bats as often as it should.
For a pitcher of similar caliber, what is the average strikeout rate? I took a sample of 30 pitchers at or around an 84 percent contact rate and evaluated their strikeout rates since 2011. The average contact rate of the sample was 84.2 percent, which is close to representative. The average strikeout rate of those 30 pitchers was 15.9 percent, which is a bit worse than Eovaldi and a bit better than Cosart and Alvarez.
But what about the ceiling for these players? I looked at the six best strikeout rates, representing the 80th percentile of performance from the sample. The average of those strikeout rates was 18.6 percent, which means we can reasonably expect that to be a top-flight performance of pitchers with these numbers.
The same can be done with walks and another reasonable estimator of walk rates: zone percentage. Over the last two years on average, Eovaldi and Alvarez have put up zone percentages of around 54 percent. The top 30 pitchers in zone percentage since 2011 averaged a 53.3 percent contact rate, so this sample may not be entirely representative. In that group, the average walk rate was at 6.5 percent, which is what Alvarez threw last season.
But the 80th percentile of starters performed at a fantastic 4.3 percent rate, which is a bit better than what Eovaldi and Alvarez have done in 2014. The ceiling includes the zone pound-iest of pitchers like Bartolo Colon, Cliff Lee, and Brandon McCarthy, who all allow criminally low walk rates. These are the guys to whom Cosart and company should be aspiring.
The home run question is a bit different. Alvarez and Cosart have ground ball stuff with excellent sinkers. Eovaldi has failed to maintain his ground ball rate from early in the season and has settled into an identical 43.6 percent rate from last year.
Both Alvarez and Cosart have career ground ball rates close to 54 or 55 percent. The top 30 ground ball pitchers in the last three-plus seasons have a collective average ground ball rate of 53.8 percent, which is close to representative. Those pitchers allowed an average of 0.83 home runs per nine innings. The best six pitchers allowed 0.60 homers per nine innings.
For Eovaldi, it is a different sample of pitchers. The 30 starters closest to Eovaldi's ground ball rate had a rate of 44.1 percent. The sample's average was at 1.03 homers per nine innings, but the six best pitchers in this group allowed 0.75 homers per nine innings. This is still significantly higher than Eovaldi's home run numbers thus far (0.6 homers per nine allowed since 2013), but it is optimistic.
We have seen the rates of what a top pitcher the likes of Alvarez, Cosart, or Eovaldi can put up, but how does that translate to the run department? We can use those percentages to convert into a FIP, which is an ERA estimator based on performance on strikeouts, walks, and home runs.
The average pitcher with those kind of numbers turned out to be a very good pitcher, with an expected ERA of around 3.23 to 3.36. In the case of Eovaldi's average pitcher with a higher home run rate, we would expect someone with a 3.30 to 3.42 ERA. In both cases, these pitchers are above average starters.
But in the best case scenarios, Alvarez, Cosart, and Eovaldi could look like All-Stars. The ceiling numbers for Alvarez and Cosart yield a pitcher with a 3.03 to 3.16 ERA. For Eovaldi, the situation is only slightly worse, with an expected best-case scenarion ERA of 3.09 to 3.22. Either way, both of these pitchers appear to be close to four-win starters over the course of 180-inning season, which means they are at an All-Star level at their ceiling.
Is there a pitcher in the majors who approaches the ceiling of these type of players? Look no further than Washington Nationals starter Jordan Zimmermann as a shining example.
Zimmermann's numbers since 2011 indicate a pitcher close to ace level, and he has averaged 3.9 WAR per 200 innings. Miami would be dizzy with happiness if they saw that kind of performance from any or all of the three starters.
Which is most likely to hit that kind of performance? Alvarez has pitched the longest and is the oldest of the three, so he seems most established at his baseline. Eovaldi appears to be the closest to that level, but he has the issue of lacking the ground ball prowess to get a better ceiling. Cosart is the wild card; his performance thus far is only based on five starts with Miami, and prior to that he showed complete lack of control and command. Then again, he is the youngest of the three and has excellent stuff and a grounder-inducing pitch.
If I had to put my money on someone reaching four-win performance, it would be on Eovaldi and his 96-97 mph fastball. But Cosart and Eovaldi have decent chances, and do not count out Alvarez, who may currently be the best of the three.