Nathan Eovaldi: Velocity Without the Strikeouts

Nathan Eovaldi’s fastball velocity ranked fourth among qualified starters this year. However, it hasn’t actually translated into strikeouts. In fact, the 10 pitchers with the highest velocity this year averaged a 22% strikeout rate. Eovaldi’s 16.6% mark was second worst in the group. Seven of the 10 pitchers sported strikeout rate marks above 20%. So it’s unusual to find a pitcher with such strong velocity to be unable to punch out batters at even a league average clip.

The problem is that his fastball, despite coming in faster than most, just isn’t very good. For his career, his four-seamer has averaged a SwStk% mark below the league average, and it has actually declined every season. And yet, he throws it a lot, about 57% of the time this year. If you’re going to throw a four-seamer that often, it better generate swings and misses or be a surprising source of grounders, otherwise it essentially becomes a waste of a pitch. At the very least, perhaps it could be used to set up a changeup. But Eovaldi rarely uses his, and for good reason — it stinks.

There may be an explanation though. We know that fastballs up in the zone induce more whiffs than those lower in the zone. Check out Eovaldi’s fastball heat map over his career:

Eovaldi Heat Map

He generally throws his fastball in the middle and lower half of the zone, and has actually thrown it most frequently right down the middle. High velocity alone isn’t enough to generate whiffs if the location of the pitch is in every hitter’s wheelhouse. So perhaps throwing it up in the zone more often or at least locating it in spots where batters have to reach or at least have some difficulty making contact would be of some benefit. And it would likely result in a higher SwStk% mark for the pitch and boost his strikeout rate.

He complements the fastball with a slider and curveball, the latter of which is primarily thrown to lefties since the changeup is ineffective. The slider has been slightly above average by SwStk% the last two years and seems like a decent, albeit unspectacular, pitch. He’s essentially a two-pitch pitcher against right-handers with the fastball/slider combo, and then whips out the curve, alternating between that and the slider to complement the fastball against lefties. The SwStk% on his curve has doubled from its 2012-2013 levels, so if he could sustain those gains and make improvements on the location of his fastball to generate more swings and misses, we have the ingredients for a jump in strikeout rate.

Aside from a surprisingly low SwStk%, Eovaldi has had trouble getting called strikes. Although he was just below the league average in 2012 and 2013, his looking strike rate fell precipitously this year. But it’s another source of upside for his strikeout rate if his looking strike rate rebounds to previous levels.

The one major positive is the upward trend in his strike percentage. When he debuted back in 2011, his strike rate was well below average. It then ticked up the next season to right around average, and has jumped each season since. It finally resulted in a huge decline in his walk rate, pushing his K-BB% above 10% for the first time.

With a sub-4.00 SIERA mark this year, which was well below his actual ERA, Eovaldi doesn’t need to improve his skill set at all really to earn NL-Only league value. Better batted ball luck should be enough. But he still possesses that blazing fastball and it offers us hope that he could make the adjustments necessary to translate that velocity into an above average strikeout rate and become an asset in shallower mixed leagues.

Mike Podhorzer is the 2015 Fantasy Sports Writers Association Baseball Writer of the Year. He produces player projections using his own forecasting system and is the author of the eBook Projecting X 2.0: How to Forecast Baseball Player Performance, which teaches you how to project players yourself. His projections helped him win the inaugural 2013 Tout Wars mixed draft league. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikePodhorzer and contact him via email.

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