The entire point of baseball is to find your way home. For Nate Eovaldi, that has taken a decade.
There were three trades along the way, a second Tommy John surgery, and two trips through free agency. But finally, at the age of 32, his career has the definition and sense of belonging it once lacked.
“This is home,” said Eovaldi, patting the Red Sox logo on his T-shirt after pitching in a spring training game. “It’s been really nice to feel that way.”
Eovaldi is scheduled to face the Yankees when the season opens Thursday afternoon in the Bronx. It would be his third consecutive Opening Day start for the Sox. The last Red Sox pitcher to do that was Jon Lester, who started four in a row from 2011-14.
It’s apt. Eovaldi, like Lester, is a quiet, hard worker who has earned the respect of his teammates and the confidence of his manager.
“He’s been great for us,” Alex Cora said. “What he brings to the equation — and I always say this in the clubhouse — is how consistent he is. His abilities keep evolving. He’s one of those guys you want. He’s a horse.”
This wasn’t necessarily what the Red Sox originally expected. Eovaldi was a trade-deadline acquisition in 2018 who patched a hole in a rotation dealing with injuries. But that led to one of the most memorable relief appearances in World Series history, a four-year contract extension, and a home in Weston for his family.
“We love it in Boston,” Eovaldi said. “A lot of good things have happened here. We go back to Texas after the season but my wife and my kids love Boston. It’s been comfortable for us.”
Eovaldi had the best season of his career in 2021. He was durable, throwing 182⅓ innings over 32 starts, and efficient, leading the majors with only 1.7 walks per nine innings.
The Sox won 19 of Eovaldi’s starts and his earned run average of 3.75 was the best in his career over a full season. He finished fourth in the American League Cy Young Award voting.
Eovaldi also beat Gerrit Cole in the American League Wild Card Game and pitched well in three other postseason starts. Now he faces Cole again Thursday.
“I feel like part of the family here,” Eovaldi said. “It’s been a special thing. This organization made me feel welcome from the start and now I see young pitchers coming up and I want to be a good example to them.”
That has already happened, given how Eovaldi has transformed from a fireballer to a pitcher who has several ways, and several subtle tricks, to send a batter back to the dugout.
Lots of menu options
A story about a successful pitcher almost always includes a mention of a high spin rate, a measurable that is often an indicator of ability. But Eovaldi’s fastball registers only in the 29th percentile of spin, and his curveball (ninth percentile) even less.
For Red Sox pitching coach Dave Bush, the spin on spin is to look beyond it.
“Nate throws hard,” Bush said. “Spin rate or not, if he can locate his fastball with high velo, it sets up everything else. Sometimes guys get in trouble trying to create spin. What are you good at? Nate is good at throwing hard. He doesn’t spin the ball particularly well and it doesn’t matter.”
Eovaldi averaged 96.8 miles per hour with his fastball last season and threw it 42 percent of the time. He also has a curveball, slider, splitter, and cutter, dividing up his pie chart of secondary pitches into nearly equal slices.
Eovaldi also added an occasional hesitation to his delivery, along with an occasional quick pitch over the last two seasons.
“There are a lot of ways you can upset a hitter’s timing,” Bush said. “You can do a slide step, pitch out of the stretch, out of the windup. You can do a quick pitch or a pause. There’s a lot of different ways to play the game.
“I encourage the guys who can do it, who can control their deliveries, to be open to that and incorporate it when they think it’s right.”
If a quick pitch or hesitation causes a drop in velocity or less movement, it defeats the purpose. But if a pitcher can retain his command, it’s another way to throw off a hitter’s timing.
“You have to attack the hitters,” Eovaldi said. “They have leg kicks, toe taps, and other timing mechanisms. This is a way to disrupt that. That’s why Luis Tiant twisted around the way he did.
“I tried to learn how to create more spin. I just can’t do it. But I found what works for me.”
Efficiency helps, too. Eovaldi averaged 4.7 walks per nine innings in 2019. That has dropped to 1.6 in the two seasons since, the sixth-lowest mark in the majors among qualified pitchers.
It’s more a product of experience than a physical adjustment.
“He’s gotten a lot better at knowing his own delivery,” Bush said. “So when it’s off he can make a correction within a pitch or two. That avoids those four-, five-, or six-pitch stretches where he just can’t find the zone. He doesn’t have many of those.”
Eovaldi also has enough confidence in his offspeed pitches to throw one for a strike when he’s behind in the count.
“With Nate, you have a lot of choices as a catcher, and they’re all good ones,” Kevin Plawecki said.
A different pitcher now
It goes back to when Eovaldi was drafted and developed by the Dodgers. He debuted in the majors in 2011, the year Clayton Kershaw won his first Cy Young Award.
Kershaw was only 23 months older than Eovaldi but became the pitcher he emulated.
“I learned a lot from just watching him and how he went about his business and his work ethic,” Eovaldi said. “I soaked it all in. He would visualize his start the day before it happened.”
Stints with the Marlins, Yankees, and Rays followed, along with numerous stints on the injured list.
“You saw the talent, but there were a lot of red flags and question marks,” Cora said.
Eovaldi stepped into the spotlight in Game 3 of the 2018 World Series. He took the mound in the 12th inning of a 1-1 game and pitched into the 18th, throwing 97 pitches with the game on the line for every one of them.
He lost the game when Max Muncy homered leading off the bottom of the 18th. But Eovaldi saving the bullpen helped lift the Red Sox to the championship two nights later.
“It was pretty amazing,” said Kiké Hernández, who faced Eovaldi three times that night as a Dodger and is now a teammate. “What he did changed the Series.”
Hernández, who also played with Eovaldi in Miami, sees a different pitcher now.
“The older he gets, the more he evolves and the better he gets,” said Hernández. “That’s really inspiring.
“He used to be way more comfortable pitching away to hitters. Now he has a five-pitch mix and can throw them all for the strike, and he’s adding the hesitation and the quick pitch.
“He can go to both sides of the plate against righties and lefties. When you have to worry about how he messes up your timing, it makes facing him a lot tougher.”
That sounds like a pitcher who can succeed well into his 30s.
“People are asking, ‘When do you think you’ll be done?’ But I feel so good and I’m finally able to stay healthy,” Eovaldi said. “I want to keep going. I like this division and this team and playing for a fan base that really understands the game.”
Eovaldi will be a free agent after the season, along with Hernández, J.D. Martinez, Christian Vazquez, and Xander Bogaerts (if he exercises his opt-out).
Whether or not Eovaldi is a fit won’t be clear until the fall. But he hopes that will be the case.
“Of course,” Eovaldi said quickly. “I love it here. I’d be open to anything here. Working with AC, Bushy, and the front office has been great. I’m at a point in my career where the biggest thing is to be part of a winning team and compete for championships.
“You want the opportunity to go out every year and have a legitimate chance to win the World Series, and we have that.”