Nathan Eovaldi has always had a good fastball. It took until 2018, but the whiffs finally came when he started elevating it. Since then, the issue has been that Eovaldi hasn’t had another plus pitch. His cutter has mostly returned mediocre results, and his curveball has never been more than a get-me-over pitch. This year, he’s finally struck a balance, and—paired with good health—he’s having his best year yet. And there’s probably still room to grow.
Since 2016, Eovaldi has had something of a home run problem. It’s been even worse than Dylan Bundy and Matthew Boyd, which should speak for itself. Unlike Bundy and Boyd, it wasn’t just his fastball. All of his pitches took turns being home run pitches, but especially his fastball and cutter. This year, it’s been much less of an issue:
I’ve only included Eovaldi’s offerings since 2019, but this year, there’s a clear demarcation between Eovaldi’s cutter and slider. That’s a departure from his cutter-slider combo of past: more than ever, they’re two distinct pitches. While Eovaldi’s slider hasn’t actually changed much from what it’s been over time, he’s added more ride to his cutter and more drop to his curveball. He’s changing his pitcher around his slider, which is probably the right way to do things.
Not only have Eovaldi’s pitches begun to distinguish themselves, but he’s also changed his approach to reflect that. Again, those changes have come via his cutter and slider, just this time in terms of pitch location. My favorite change has been in Eovaldi’s cutter location:
For the most part, Eovaldi is still throwing his cutter in the same spot, at the middle- and lower-third of the zone to his glove-side. The difference is that, with some extra ride on his cutter, he’s started to creep up into the top arm-side corner of the zone with it.
That’s looked a lot like this, a called third strike against a lefty in Nate Lowe:
A swinging strike against a lefty in Yordan Álvarez:
A called third strike against a righty in Mark Canha:
And a swinging strike against a righty in Nick Madrigal:
As far as his cutter goes, this is its most optimal location. It’s agnostic to batter handedness. Whether he’s back dooring it against lefties or front dooring it against righties, it gives hitters a lot of grief. It doesn’t quite have the same ride or velocity, but it’s not dissimilar from a Corbin Burnes cutter in some ways.
More cutter elevation would probably serve him well. Not only because his cutter leads all pitchers in ball-in-play percentage—which takes away strikeout opportunities—but also because his cutter doesn’t get put into play as much when it’s elevated to his arm-side. Although it’s something of a Catch-22, his cutter has helped him take a step forward, but it’s also holding him back from more strikeouts, which would help him take the leap towards (but not quite reaching) acedom.
Again, it’s not just his cutter. Consider the average vertical pitch location of all of his pitches, by year:
Average vertical pitch location can’t always detect changes in pitch location, which is why his cutter is only up a smidge. But if you look at his slider, labeled in red, you’ll see that it’s dropped out of the graphic entirely. Part of Eovaldi’s problem is that he’s never had a pitch that hitters will chase out of the zone. His slider still isn’t necessarily that pitch, but if you can’t get hitters to chase pitches out of the zone, then you can do this:
This heat map comes with the caveat that Eovaldi the pitch classifications between Eovaldi’s cutter and slider are a little messy. Baseball Savant doesn’t even have any sliders thrown by Eovaldi last year. Regardless of where you look, though, Eovaldi has been throwing his slider lower than ever. That’s a combination of changing his pitch properties and throwing them in more optimal locations.
And so, right now, Eovaldi looks like a legitimate home run suppressor. It’s not a coincidence that he’s been, either. From 2011 to 2015, Eovaldi didn’t miss many bats, but he did have a 0.63 HR/9. That ballooned to 1.65, or 128 HR/9+, from 2016 to 2020. With his new refined approach, it seems like Eovaldi can maintain a deflated home run rate. Doing so at his current clip is perhaps a lofty expectation, but with above-average command and a newfound ability to use several offerings as weapons, it seems like more of a skill than pure volatility.
Eovaldi has already taken a step forward by suppressing home runs, at best, and becoming an average home run suppressor, at worst. Taking his 63 FIP- and regressing it towards 85 xFIP- probably tells us more accurately what his true skill level is moving forward, in ERA form. That’s plenty good, but Eovaldi could take find another gear by taking his 22.8 K% and bumping increasing it by at least a few points. Whether that looks like elevating his cutter more often, fading his splitter, or throwing more curveballs, there’s a path for it to be done. Eovaldi just needs to limit more balls in play, and in turn, throw more strikes.
It’s always hard to know how real some skills are, and how they might change. Right now, Nathan Eovaldi is an All-Star. He became one by combining the ability to induce whiffs that he gained in 2018 and paired it with his old skill of suppressing home runs. If he doesn’t change anything, he’ll be plenty fine. But if he does want to find that other gear, there are plenty of avenues he can explore to do so.