I got the idea for this post while writing a player caption for Nate Eovaldi (more on him in a moment). As I outlined the glass half full scenario for the upcoming season, it occurred to me that 1. Eovaldi is free even in the deepest leagues and 2. pitchers like Eovaldi sometimes spontaneously become useful. Excellent even.
Charlie Morton and James Paxton immediately came to mind – they were always injured and then suddenly they found health and reached acedom (*cough* Paxton is broken again). Those are just two poster children for the upside. Carlos Carrasco, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Lance Lynn, Mike Minor, Eduardo Rodriguez, Frankie Montas, Jameson Taillon, and Homer Bailey are all variations of this profile.
And so, without further ado, I present five always broken starting pitchers who might just might have something left to give.
Nathan Eovaldi – Boston Red Sox
“Loose bodies” waylaid Eovaldi in the first of his four-year, $68MM contract. He came out of the gate missing some of the zippiness characteristic of his secondary stuff. By mid-April, he was on the shelf. He returned, for bullpen duties, in late-July. It was hoped he’d play up in relief and fill in as a much-needed closer. Once the Red Sox accepted the truth that 2019 was not their year, they returned Eovaldi to the rotation for eight starts.
At full strength, he wields a five-pitch repertoire headlined by a 98 mph fastball and 93 mph cutter. He’ll also throw a curve and splitter. Both are weapons. His slider is more of a show-me offering. While his two heaters have performed well in the past, including his solid 2018 campaign, they were positively dreadful in 2019.
If you’re feeling optimistic, it’s worth pointing out that all of Eovaldi’s skills present in 2018 were in evidence during the 2019 campaign. He came back from injury with his normal velocity. His breaking stuff remained effective. He even managed to buff his strikeout rate, albeit at the expense of a 4.66 BB/9. Over his career, he’s allowed 2.88 BB/9. It’s fair to wonder if the slicker 2019 baseball led to a stark loss of command. This would explain both the decline in walk rate and fastball effectiveness.
Eovaldi is a few days shy of his 30th birthday so it’s not as if he’s an oldie. Many of the names in the intro – i.e. Morton, Ryu, Lynn, Minor, and Bailey – all found a new gear later in their careers. And health!
Alex Wood – Los Angeles Dodgers
Wood, 29, never got rolling for the Cincinnati Reds. He managed just 35.2 innings across seven starts with a 5.80 ERA. The Dodgers decided to bring him back on a one-year, $4MM contract. We can safely assume he’ll grab a role in the bullpen, probably as a long reliever.
With Ross Stripling maybe getting traded (the Mookie Betts trade is still up in the air as of this writing), Wood could slip into that swing-starter role. When he’s healthy, he’s consistently delivered around 8.00 K/9, 2.50 BB/9, and a mid-3’s ERA. He’s a deceptive southpaw who relies on a sinker-slider-changeup repertoire. Everything deceives downward, leading to a 50 percent ground ball rate.
Today’s game isn’t the best meta for a soft-tossing southpaw who works down in the zone. Too many hitters have turned the lower quadrants into their nitro zone. This doesn’t mean Wood is doomed to fail – he’s deceptive enough to make it work anyway. It does mean he has less margin for error if he’s to recover from the small sample 2.78 HR/9 he coughed up last season.
Joe Ross – Washington Nationals
Austin Voth is going to give Ross a run for his money this spring. The two are set to battle for the fifth starter’s role with the loser probably landing in the bullpen as the long reliever. The Nationals lack rotational depth so whoever loses the fight will merely need to bide their time and stay healthy.
In August, Ross rejoined the rotation. Over his next eight starts, the 26-year-old posted a 2.75 ERA (3.77 FIP and 4.88 xFIP) with 7.32 K/9 and 4.58 BB/9. It’s a… funky… stat line. Four of eight starts fell short of five innings as the Nationals scraped and clawed for any advantage in their quest to reach the postseason. On the plus side, he also fired three quality starts.
The big difference maker was a new breaking ball – an 81 mph curve ball. It was his best offering for inducing whiffs. His fastball also reached a new career-high average velocity. His stint in the bullpen probably helped.
None of his pitches performed particularly well when put in play. He’s always had issues with allowing too many line drives. On the plus side, he also has a history of much better walk rates (career 2.87 BB/9).
If he can mix together the whiff rates of his newfangled curve ball and his usual stinginess with free passes, there’s upside for something like a poor man’s Lance McCullers. Think roughly a strikeout per inning, few walks, and a little too much hard contact over four to six inning bursts.
Shelby Miller– Milwaukee Brewers
Homer Bailey turned in a solid 2014 campaign then promptly vanished until his surprise resurgence in 2019. Miller, 29, will need to pull off a similar stunt if he’s to regain relevance. His last success came in 2015 with the Braves. He briefly flashed a breakout in four starts during the 2017 campaign before falling down a bottomless well of injuries. He’ll join the Brewers as a non-roster invitee.
Miller tossed 44 innings for the Rangers last season, posting a 8.59 ERA with 6.14 K/9 and 5.93 BB/9. He was similarly terrible in a brief stint with the Diamondbacks in 2018. On the plus side, the righty is still pumping 94 mph with his heater. While that meant something during his Braves heyday, it’s just a league average velocity now. He leaned almost exclusively on his four seamer and curve with the Rangers, and neither pitch was especially effective.
It’s safe to say that, like Bailey, Miller will need to reinvent himself. However, in this age of pitch labs and spin rate analysis, Miller seemingly has all the tools necessary. After all, Bailey was nearly as terrible in the four years prior to his resurrection. Be on the lookout for new pitches or a spike in velocity.
Taijuan Walker – Free Agent
At present, Walker is the top free agent starting pitcher on the market by projection. Alas, he seems to be behind the curve in his preparation for 2020. He recently held a workout for teams where he showed a mid-80s fastball. Needless to say, he’ll need to settle for a non-roster invitation if not a straight minor league contract.
To be fair to Walker, it’s not unusual for pitchers to sit in the 80s during February. Especially guys with the injury history of Walker. Speaking from personal experience, there’s nothing like an arm injury to teach you how to hold back your best heat for when it matters. When Walker returned from Tommy John surgery to throw one inning last season, he was sitting at his normal 93 mph. He even induced some whiffs while flashing a good-looking split-change.
Now 27, the former top prospect is reminiscent of Paxton, another vaunted Mariner who just couldn’t figure out how to stay healthy. Paxton finally turned a corner in his… age 27 season! There is precedence for a rebound. Don’t get your hopes too high though. Walker doesn’t possess a weapon akin to Paxton’s slider.
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