For the fourth time in the last six American League Wild Card Games, the New York Yankees find themselves in the one-game, no-holds barred cage match for the right to move on to the American League Division Series. This time, the Yanks will add what promises to be another exhilarating chapter to the greatest rivalry in sports as they face the Boston Red Sox in Fenway Park on Tuesday night. What follows is a quick look at how the Bronx Bombers might attack starting pitcher Nathan Eovaldi.
Tuesday night’s Red Sox starter has come a long way since his time in pinstripes. Since the start of the 2020 season, 138 pitchers have thrown at least 120 innings. Among them, Nathan Eovaldi ranks 16th in SIERA (3.57) and 18th in K-BB% (21.3%), putting him ahead of Walker Buehler, Charlie Morton, and Lance Lynn in both metrics. To put it simply, over 230.2 innings pitched in the last two seasons, Eovaldi has pitched like an ace.
In 2021, Eovaldi’s been doing it with a four-seam fastball, curveball, slider, split-finger, and cutter. Here’s how he uses that arsenal against lefties and righties, respectively.
The four-seam fastball averaged just under 97 mph this season, and although it doesn’t have great rise in isolation, Eovaldi throws it from a lower than average arm slot with above-average extension. Those two factors, along with the pitch’s well above-average velocity, make for an effective offering, especially at the top of the zone. Eovaldi doesn’t have a true wipeout pitch in his breaking or off-speed stuff, but they’re all about average to above-average offerings that play up off of his strong fastball, which can be seen in the results against those pitches this season.
|Average Velocity (Eovaldi)||96.8 mph||78.5 mph||85.8 mph||87.9 mph||92.5 mph|
|Average Velocity (League Average)||93.7 mph||79.2 mph||84.7 mph||85.7 mph||88.5 mph|
|xwOBA (League Average)||.347||.266||.270||.244||.325|
|Whiff% (League Average)||22.1%||32.4%||35.4%||37.6%||23.9%|
The one thing that really stands out about Eovaldi of late is his control: Nasty Nate’s 4.4% walk rate ranks third among the 138 pitchers with at least 120 innings pitched since the start of last season. Eovaldi also boasts the fifth-highest percentage of pitches thrown in the strike zone (47.1%) and the 13th-highest percentage of first pitch strikes (65.6%) in that span. Eno Sarris’ Stuff+ metrics also rate Eovaldi’s command highly, with his 107.2 Location+ ranking fifth among 177 pitchers with at least 1,000 pitches thrown through August 31st of this season. If you only take one thing away about Eovaldi, it should be this: he pumps strikes.
The Yankees league-leading 10.2% team walk rate and league-low 44.6% swing rate and 58.4% first pitch swing rate in 2021 juxtapose sharply with Eovaldi’s masterful control. If the Yankees take their usual patient approach against the Sox starter on Tuesday night, they might find themselves behind in the count most of the game, which is obviously not where hitters want to be. In a piece in early 2020, FanGraphs’ Ben Clemens showed that, after 0-1 counts, on average, hitters produce a 0.270 wOBA (the average wOBA produced by hitters in 2021 was .314). Similarly, after going 0-1 against Eovaldi in 2021, hitters put up a .264 xwOBA. Looking at those numbers, taking the first pitch against Eovaldi doesn’t appear to be a promising proposition for the Bombers.
It becomes even less attractive when you consider the damage done on the first pitch off the right-hander. On 0-0 swings against Eovaldi in 2021, hitters produced a .359 xwOBA (since you can’t strike out on the first pitch, this figure is somewhat inflated relative to league average offensive numbers). If you include the 2020 season, that number jumps to .392. To put that in perspective, Shohei Ohtani had a .393 wOBA this season.
So if they’ve got the green light on 0-0, what can the Yankees expect to see from Eovaldi on the first pitch? Righties see four-seam fastballs from Eovaldi over fifty percent of the time on the first pitch, and they did damage in 2021 to the tune of a .385 xwOBA against it. The locations?
Mostly up in the zone with many of them being center cut or middle away. If I was a right-handed hitter in the Yankees lineup, I’d be hunting first pitch fastballs up and out over the plate to lift into the gaps and the seats of Fenway Park.
Things are a bit more difficult for lefties on the first pitch: Eovaldi has thrown 41.2% four-seamers and 38.6% curveballs this season. The curve has been something of a boom-or-bust offering as it’s gotten a lot of swing and miss with a 62.5% whiff rate against lefties in 0-0 counts but has surrendered quality contact with a .399 xwOBA against. This probably has a lot to do with how Eovaldi has located the pitch.
If he’s able to bury it in the low-and-away part of the zone, Eovaldi will do well, but if the hammer catches too much of the plate, he’s likely to pay for it.
If Eovaldi is spotting first-pitch fastballs to lefties up-and-away, he’ll be tough to handle, but a lot of the below locations are dangerous, especially to the left-handed power bats the Yankees added at the deadline. Even given the prospect of whiffing on a curveball to go down 0-1, I expect that Anthony Rizzo, Joey Gallo, Brett Gardner, and Rougned Odor will also look to do damage against first pitch fastballs on Tuesday night.
It’s worth noting that this will be the seventh time the Yankees see Eovaldi this season, the fourth time since the All-Star Break, and the second in the last eleven days. There probably isn’t much the Yanks have yet to see from Eovaldi in 2021. If he tries to flip the script with a higher dose of breaking and off-speed stuff than normal early in the count or works outside the zone more in an effort to get New York to chase, the Yankees will have to adjust accordingly.
The Fenway faithful will be loud and ravenous. These one-game playoffs can unravel quickly. Until Eovaldi reveals a different game plan, the Yankees would do well to quiet the crowd early with damage on first-pitch fastballs, taking the Cobra Kai axiom to heart: strike first, strike hard, no mercy.