Is Nathan Eovaldi Evolving Into a Big-Time Pitcher?

Eovaldi always had a fastball, but he never put it all together until recently. What changed?

One of the things that makes baseball super-duper hard is that there are men who throw the ball in excess of 98 miles per hour, consistently. And, here's why you and I don't play it for money. Those guys still get hit.

Can you imagine that? Can you imagine standing 60 feet, six inches away from a dude who is hurling a rock-hard sphere at or around your person at around 97 to 98 miles per hour, and then you are tasked with trying to hit that ball with a wooden stick safely into the field of play? There's a reason we don't try to do that, and that is because hitting a 98 mile per hour fastball, no matter where it's being thrown, is an almost impossible task for every single one of us.

But not in the Majors. In the Majors, even that upper-90s speedball gets smacked all around the park if it's too straight or the secondary stuff is wanting.

That's been the story of  Nathan Eovaldi's career.

Eovaldi entered the Yankees' big game against the Houston Astros on Monday with a 4.24 ERA but a 13-2 record thanks to a healthy amount of run support in his 24 starts. As it has been throughout his career, his strikeout rate has been below league average at 6.62 strikeouts per nine innings (the league average this year is 7.68), all while his fastball has actually increased in velocity, averaging 97-98 miles per hour this season, about one mile an hour faster than last year.

However, on Monday, Eovaldi may have taken a huge step forward with an eight-inning, no-run performance in which he struck out seven, walked three and gave up just four hits, lowering his ERA to 4.00 with a FIP of 3.48.

It was the second-best start of his career, with a Game Score of 78, and more encouragingly, it was the continuation of a trend that has been developing over the last few months.

That's a massive turnaround from earlier in the season when, in his first 13 starts, he had an ERA of 5.12, a FIP of 4.07, and struck out just 50 in 70 1/3 innings. Keep in mind that this is a gentleman who averages 97-98 miles per hour on his fastball and routinely reaches triple digits.

That's all well and good, you might say, but it doesn't mean jack squat if that fastball is straight as an arrow and his secondary pitches are garbage. For the season, batters are hitting .343 with a slugging percentage of .470 against his fastball, and .301 with a .425 slugging percentage against his slider (according to Brooks Baseball). His curve and splitter have yielded better results, but the fastball and slider are the two pitches he has thrown most often.

However, in his 11 most recent starts heading into Monday, batters were hitting just .276 with a .379 slugging percentage against his fastball and .286 with a .357 slugging against his slider, a marked improvement over his full season totals.

And Fangraphs' Eno Sarris noted that Eovaldi has developed a new grip to his split-finger pitch that has given it more late movement. He's trusting it more, and it's getting results, holding batters to a .196 average and .217 slugging percentage. More important, he's thrown it more than he has his slider (300 splits to 234 sliders according to Brooks Baseball) in those 11 outings before Monday.

If Eovaldi has found a secondary pitch that looks like his premium fastball but has late, downward movement to it, all of a sudden that upper 90s fastball becomes a real weapon, no matter how straight it is. And it could help make him a fantasy relevant starter down the stretch as the Yankees turn to him to help fill the gap left by CC Sabathia, who appears lost for the season with right knee inflammation.

While I wouldn't say you should "trust" that Eovaldi will drastically increase his strikeout rate and do what he did against Houston on a nightly basis, he's certainly someone to watch over his next few starts to see if perhaps we're seeing the evolution of a pitcher who is still just 25 years old.