What To Do With Eovaldi? | The Process Report

What To Do With Eovaldi?

The Rays signed Nathan Eovaldi last year with a team option, knowing full well he would not throw a regular-season pitch in 2017. They must have liked what they saw during his rehab process as they exercised is $2M team option for 2018. What remains unclear is the best way to utilize him.

The early indications are that Eovaldi will begin in the season in the rotation, where he has made 127 of his 134 appearances at the big league level. The first start he makes in 2018 will be his first pitch at the major league level since he had his second Tommy John surgery on August 19th, 2016. Eovaldi’s first surgery came in 2007 when he was a 17-year old high school fireballer in Texas.

The list of pitchers who have had multiple Tommy John surgeries is not very long. It does include former Devil Rays closer Al Reyes and starter Victor Zambrano as well as current Rays broadcaster Brian Anderson, but it does not include too many pitchers that came back and resumed a career as a starting pitcher. Chris Capuano is the best example of a successful return as he had his second TJ surgery in 2008, but then returned and threw 186 innings in 2011 and 198 in 2012 before tapering off into a swingman career. Daniel Hudson is a best current story from a relief perspective as he has worked 60 or more innings in three consecutive seasons after missing most of 2013 and 2014 with back-to-back surgeries. Hudson’s path is the one that is most frequent for pitchers that do make it back from multiple TJ surgeries end up in the bullpen as recent research finds that the number of innings those pitchers pitched decreased by nearly half.

“Although a second surgery may not be career-ending, it appears to be career-limiting by virtue of a decreased workload and pitching productivity,” senior study author Dr. Vasilios Moutzouros, an orthopedic surgeon, said in a Henry Ford Health System news release.

“And for those who return to the major league level, they experience a mixed bag of performance levels. In several categories, their performance declines significantly,” 

Pre-injury, Eovaldi had the highest average fastball velocity of all starting pitchers with at least 2000 fastballs thrown over the course of the 2015+2016 seasons at 97.6 MPH per Baseball Savant:

Rk. Player Results Avg Velo
1 Nathan Eovaldi 2218 97.6 MPH
2 Gerrit Cole 2673 96.2 MPH
3 Stephen Strasburg 2323 95.8 MPH
4 Kevin Gausman 3151 95.6 MPH
5 Danny Salazar 2857 95.5 MPH
6 Chris Archer 3510 95.4 MPH
7 Andrew Cashner 2359 95.1 MPH
8 Jacob deGrom 2420 95.0 MPH
9 Danny Duffy 2082 95.0 MPH
10 Max Scherzer 3957 94.9 MPH

 

His fastball had an average spin rate of 2217 RPM over that period which ranks 107th out of 165 pitchers. The chart constructed by Jeff Zimmerman below shows the average whiff rate for pitchers based on velocity + spin rate. Eovaldi’s combination has an average result of nine percent whiff rate, which is slightly above the league average for starting pitcher fastballs despite that his average fastball velocity is well above the league average for starting pitchers.

His actual fastball whiff rate over that two-year period was a bit lower than that, and the table below shows how that compares to other Tampa Bay starters over that same period:

Player

Whiff Rate

Jake Odorizzi

11.3%

Drew Smyly

10.6%

Chris Archer

8.2%

Nate Eovaldi

7.4%

Erasmo Ramirez

6.2%

 

The slider is his secondary pitch, and the whiff rate on that pitch before the injury was 12 percent, which is also below the league average for starting pitchers. That combination of factors helps explain why Eovaldi has a whiff rate that was 59th out of 89  starters who relied on fastballs and sliders as their two primary pitches from 2015 through 2016.

Another issue around Eovaldi centers around his struggles against lefties as there is a 46 point split in his wOBA between righties (.298) and lefties (.344) over the course of his career. He added a splitter after the 2014 season after he had a .336 wOBA against lefties, and the pitch has earned some rather positive reviews.

 

In theory, the addition of a splitter should be something that would improve Eovaldi’s numbers against lefties as the pitch introduces a change of speed to batters as well as a pitch that moves in a different direction from his other two offerings. The process was there, but the numbers have not yet come around as his wOBA against lefties has been .345 and .367 with a rash of gopheritis the year of his injury with 12 homers allowed in just over 53 innings of work. The splitter performed well as it has a 17 percent whiff rate for Eovaldi and the other outcomes for the pitch were all slightly better than the league average for splitters.

The issue comes back to the aforementioned fastball as the pitch has been a decidedly below average pitch for him against lefties. Adding the splitter has not helped hide that much more did the late addition of the cut fastball to Eovaldi’s repertoire in 2016. Perhaps he began throwing the cutter more than the splitter because he was feeling something in his elbow and knew something was not right, but even a four-pitch mixture was not enough to salvage his numbers against lefty hitters.

Lastly, the longer Eovaldi has been left in the game, the worse his overall outcomes have become. 2016 appears to be an outlier for that trend, but he has most definitely been victimized by the Times Through The Order Penalty throughout his career which is to be expected of someone with an underperforming fastball and an evolving pitch repertoire.

In summary, Eovaldi is a pitcher returning from a second Tommy John surgery who has not yet shown a consistent ability to solve lefties, troubles once he has turned over a lineup for a second time, and has a high-velocity fastball with low movement. The path forward would appear to be of two paths. One path would be to put Eovaldi on the Nathan Karns plan and yank him before the 19th batter of the game is announced. The other path would be to do what has historically been done with pitchers with health concerns, very discernable splits between righties and lefties, and trouble facing batters for a third time which would be moving Eovaldi to the pen. The unknown is whether his repaired arm could handle the varied workload out of the pen and working on consecutive nights, but you do not know it until you try it.

If the Rays do follow through with a trade of Alex Colome, the back end of the pen will need help. Eovaldi is on a one-year deal and it would be tough, if not impossible, for him to turn around the well-established struggles he had as a starting pitcher coming off a major surgery. What he could do is change his course and see how his repaired arm and tweaked repertoire play up for 25-35 pitches a contest. Eovaldi may indeed get that chance to be a starter first under some constraints while Brent Honeywell‘s service time is addressed, but it will not be surprising to see Eovaldi in the pen sooner rather than later in 2018 and it may be the best thing for him in his pursuit of his next deal.



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