The scouting report on Nathan Eovaldi is pretty simple: a hard-throwing yet hittable right-hander, who has struggled to rack up strikeouts despite a blazing fastball that he throws consistently in the mid-to-high 90s.
The stats back up the scouts, too. Eovaldi's heater last season averaged 95.7 mph, tied for third-highest among starting pitchers, yet his strikeout rate of 16.6 percent ranked 70th in that group of 88 qualified starters. He racked up just 142 strikeouts in 199 2/3 innings last year, one more than Masahiro Tanaka managed in his injury-shorted season of 136 1/3 innings.
Eovaldi even admitted that his lack of strikeouts remains one of the biggest holes in his resume. “That’s one of the big issues I’ve had, not being able to finish the batters off,” Eovaldi told reporters this spring.
So why does Eovaldi struggle so much to get strike three and put away hitters, despite a fastball that nearly reaches three digits? You know the drill, let's dig into the numbers to see if we can make sense of the apparent disconnect between Eovaldi's high heat and mediocre strikeout rates.
More than just a fastball If there is one obvious reason why Eovaldi can't finish off hitters, it's that he lacks a third out-pitch and is far too predictable when getting ahead in the count. Last year nearly 90 percent of his pitches with two strikes were either fastballs (55.1 percent) or sliders (34.7).
The key to striking out batters is to keep them guessing after gaining the advantage in the at-bat. Eovaldi has never had the confidence to throw his curveball or changeup with two strikes, making it easy for hitters to either sit on his fastball or pounce on a hanging slider when behind in the count.
The good news, however, is that Eovaldi knows this is a problem and has been working on adding a third putaway pitch – a splitter – to his repertoire this season. The Yankees are hoping that the splitter can serve as a complement to his fastball-slider combo, giving him another weapon to finish off hitters and boost his middling strikeout totals.
Location, location, location Eovaldi's troubles in trying to get strikeouts weren't limited to his pitch mix. He also was also very predictable in his location, and often served up fat pitches in two-strike counts that had little chance of producing whiffs.
He threw 49.3 percent of his two-strike pitches in the zone, the third-highest rate among starters in 2014. Throwing a bunch of pitches in the defined strike zone is not a problem by itself; but it does become an issue when those pitches are thrown in a hitters' sweetspot. As you can see in the heat map below, he did keep the ball away from right-handed batters, but he left a ton of two-strike pitches over the heart of the plate vs lefties.
More than one-third (33.8 percent) of Eovaldi's pitches with two strikes were thrown in the vertical middle-third of the zone (i.e. belt-high) last season, well above the league-average rate of 27 percent. Throwing that many pitches right down the middle of the plate allowed opponents to hit .230 against Eovaldi with two strikes, tied for the second-highest mark given up by any qualifying starter.
If Eovaldi is going to evolve as a pitcher and improve his strikeout rates, he really needs to learn to pitch either up or down in the zone, changing hitters eye levels when getting ahead in the count. He also needs to develop the confidence to throw more pitches out of the zone with two strikes and get batters to chase them, which would also likely improve his ability to rack up strikeouts.
Hello, Brian McCann It's hard to strike out a lot of batters when you lack a third out-pitch and throw too many meatballs with two strikes, like Eovaldi. And it's even harder when you are working with a catcher that really struggles to get extra strikes on pitches out of the zone – also like Eovaldi last year.
Jarrod Saltalamacchia – who caught 124 1/3 of Eovaldi's 199 2/3 innings – was the worst-rated catcher in the majors last season, according to StatCorner.com's catcher framing metric. Brian McCann, on the other hand, ranked 11th in that same metric. The upgrade from Saltalamacchia to McCann is potentially a huge one for Eovaldi. Last year, Saltalamacchia got 183 fewer strikes than expected, while McCann got 86 more strikes than expected, per StatCorner.
If McCann can steal a few more strikes outside the zone for Eovaldi while making sure that he gets the correct calls inside the zone, too, the former Marlin could see a nice bump in his strikeouts this season purely from McCann's excellent framing skills.
Eovaldi is the ultimate enigma on the mound: he's a fireballer that has not yet shown the typical dominance of a power pitcher. However, it's important to remember that he just turned 25 years old and is still developing as a major-leaguer. Best of all, there are signs that he has the ability to make a substantial leap forward this season. He has been among the most impressive Yankee pitchers this spring, having allowed only one run and seven hits in his first three appearances. Even more encouraging is the fact that he has nine strikeouts and zero walks in nine innings pitched.
If he can make some smart adjustments with his pitch mix and location (especially against lefties) when finishing off batters, and simply let McCann work his magic behind the plate, Eovaldi has the potential to be one of the league's breakout players this season and a key part of the Yankees rotation.