As bleak as the Red Sox’ recent slump became, there was always a sliver of light on the horizon. If they could rebound from the recent derailment to forge a path into the postseason, they would feature one of the best pitchers in the American League in October.
And no, that’s not Chris Sale — or at least not yet, as the lefthander’s return from Tommy John surgery remains in its early stages. But while waiting to get a fuller picture of what the 2021 version of Sale looks like, the Red Sox have in Nate Eovaldi a pitcher who has looked for much of the year like the staff stalwart of the 2018 postseason.
“It’s not an accident that he was an All-Star,” pitching coach Dave Bush said.
Eovaldi (10-7, 3.92 ERA) will take the mound for the Red Sox in Tuesday’s doubleheader against the Yankees as the American League leader among pitchers in Wins Above Replacement, as calculated by Fangraphs. His contributions have been particularly significant against the Red Sox’ most direct competition.
In four starts against the Yankees, he is 2-0 with a 1.71 ERA, 28 strikeouts, and just one walk in 26⅓ innings. In 10 starts against AL East opponents, Eovaldi is 4-3 with a 2.89 ERA — the lowest divisional ERA by any pitcher who has thrown at least 40 innings against the AL East.
That performance against the teams he sees with the most frequency isn’t an accident. Eovaldi has one of the most unusual pitch mixes in the big leagues, allowing him to adapt his plan of attack like few others.
Eovaldi’s repertoire has always been headlined by the ease with which he works in the mid to upper 90s. This year, he’s averaging 97.0 miles per hour on his four-seam fastball — seventh in the majors among pitchers who have thrown at least 80 innings.
Yet Eovaldi’s fastball has never been a swing-and-miss pitch. It lacks deception and explosive movement.
Still, 97 is 97. When the righthander commands it to his spots — something he’s done with tremendous frequency this year — it’s hard for hitters to make anything but weak contact against it.
“[Hitters] kind of fight it off,” catcher Kevin Plawecki said. “Unless you’re sitting on it, it’s hard to hit.”
Mindful of that notion, Eovaldi makes it hard for opponents to sit on his heater. While the ability to throw hard got Eovaldi to the big leagues as a 21-year-old in 2011, he learned quickly that throwing hard wasn’t enough to thrive as a starter.
And so he developed a mix and refined how he used it. Most starters have three pitches. Elite starters sometimes have four. Eovaldi has five — and he uses all of them.
He is the only starter in the big leagues this year who has thrown five distinct pitch types at least 10 percent of the time, complementing his fastball (43.4 percent usage) with a curve (17.5 percent), cutter (13.5 percent), slider (13.3 percent), and splitter (12.3 percent). This year marks the first time that Eovaldi has flowed so freely among five offerings.
“I haven’t learned any new pitches since [coming to the Red Sox in 2018], but I’ve kind of redefined them and sharpened them up a little bit,” Eovaldi said. “I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t shy away from pitches. I don’t have one pitch where I have to use it in one count.”
He has a baseline pitch that he can command to spots — and most importantly, the top of the zone (fastball). He works to both edges of the plate with his cutter. He spins his slider off the plate for chases by righties, works below the zone with a high-velocity offering (splitter), and disrupts timing by throwing a curveball both in and out of the zone.
“It’s unique,” Bush said. “There’s obviously high velo. There’s always been high velo. He’s realized the velo alone doesn’t make him good.
“He’s always had elite stuff. [Mixing pitches is] what’s turned that elite stuff into an elite pitcher. The steps he’s taken in the last couple years, he’s just figured out exactly what he can do.”
For catchers, Eovaldi offers a rich array of possibilities. Plawecki, who caught Jacob deGrom, Zack Wheeler, and Noah Syndergaard with the Mets and Shane Bieber with Cleveland, suggests that Eovaldi’s stuff ranks with anyone else he’s caught.
“When he’s painting, it’s like a video game,” Plawecki said. “Just put the fingers down.”
Baseball is in a three-true-outcomes era in which success is defined by limiting walks and homers while racking up strikeouts. This year, Eovaldi has excelled in two of those areas and done a solid job in a third.
Eovaldi’s 24.1 percent strikeout rate is slightly above average rather than elite, though as his 10-strikeout effort against the Rays last Wednesday demonstrated, he does have an array of potential swing-and-miss options at his disposal.
While his strikeout totals fluctuate, Eovaldi consistently does a good job of controlling damaging outcomes. His 4.5 percent walk rate is the seventh-lowest among pitchers who have thrown at least 80 innings. He’s averaging 5.4 strikeouts per walk, seventh-best in MLB.
And he has limited opponents to 0.6 homers per nine innings, fifth-lowest in MLB. He’s given up hard contact on just 24.3 percent of balls in play — second-lowest among AL starters.
Beyond the most diverse pitch mix of his career, Eovaldi has featured something else in 2021 that he rarely has possessed: health. In a year in which pitcher workloads represented cause for anxiety, Eovaldi has logged 133 innings — his most since 2015.
“The fact that he can post every five days and keep his stuff, it’s a testament of who he is, the adjustments he has made,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora said. “He’s been amazing.”
He has been the pitcher the Sox hoped he would be when they signed the righthander to a four-year, $68 million deal coming off his spectacular performance in the 2018 postseason. While there is some satisfaction to be taken in performing to the expectations of a landmark contract, Eovaldi examines his career-best season (to date) through a different lens.
“Regardless of the money, I hold myself accountable to go out there and perform my best just because they gave me a jersey,” he said. “I’m representing the Red Sox, whether it’s money or not. I’m going to go out there and do my best any time. I want the team to feel it can depend on me in any game, any leverage, any situation to come in there and do my job.
“That’s what it comes down to — not how much you’re getting paid or anything like that. For me, I want to be able to go out there, use all five of my pitches any time I need to, any time, and go out there and give the team a good chance to win and go deep in the ballgames.”