Process and results. In the past few years, those have become (sometimes annoying) buzzwords in baseball. All of us, at some point, have used the term, whether earnestly as I have when describing the second Javier Vasquez trade, or ironically in poking a bit of fun at the Astros. That doesn’t mean that we can’t find meaning in the phrase, though, like in CC Sabathia’s two not-as-bad-as-the-box score-would-suggest starts and Nathan Eovaldi’s start on Thursday night in Baltimore.
In terms of the process, how Eovaldi went about things against the Orioles’ lineup, things weren’t all that different from his first start of the season against the Red Sox. On that night, Eovaldi threw 44 fastballs and 50 non-fastballs, broken up between what Brooks identified as one changeup, 26 sliders, 11 curveballs, and 12 splitters. During his second start , Eovaldi threw 45 fastballs and 56 non-fastballs (37 sliders, 17 curveballs, and two splitters). But the feeling was completely different.
While watching the game on Thursday, I couldn’t help but feel that Eovaldi was much more confident in his breaking stuff, more willing to use it in big spots or just to use it overall. In that first start, the breaking stuff seemed rudimentary at best with iffy location and not the sharpest of movement. However, Thursday, it seemed much crisper to my amateur eye. This was especially evident in the bottom of the third inning when his first five pitches of the inning, to Everth Cabrera and Adam Jones, were all breaking balls. Cabrera saw only breaking pitches in his at bat and struck out swinging; Jones saw a mix, but his at bat ended on a breaking ball he grounded fairly weakly to Didi Gregorius, who booted the ball at short. I mention this inning because it specifically lent to the good feeling I got from Eovaldi’s non-fastballs. The results lived up to that promise; let’s take a look at the pitch results section for Eovaldi’s two starts to examine my claim a little bit more closely.
When we look at these sections, I want to pay attention to two columns: whiffs and balls in play (no outs). Against Boston, Eovaldi ended 13 at bats with fastballs. 12 of those were swung on, with each one being put into play, resulting in four non-outs. The other 12 at bat-ending pitches were seven sliders, two curveballs, and three splitters. They all had something in common with the fastball: no whiffs, meaning he didn’t end a single at bat with a swing-and-a-miss against the Boston batters. This is a complete contrast with Thursday’s start. In Camden, the O’s put just 14 balls into play compared to the 22 against the Red Sox. More encouraging, though, were the seven whiffs he generated, five on his slider alone to go along with one each on a fastball and a curveball. As opposed to start number one in which his lone strikeout was a backwards K in the scorebook, seven of his nine strikeouts in start number two were swinging, mostly on breaking stuff.
The Eovaldi-centered narrative coming into this season focused on his secondary pitches; the improvements he makes (or doesn’t make) on the non-fastballs will determine whether or not he takes the next step as a big time pitcher. Thursday night gave us a glimpse at what’s possible when Eovaldi has his non-fastball pitches working. Keeping this up–confidence in the breaking ball and generating whiffs–means good process. And, generally, good process leads to good results.