Scouting the Free Agent Market: Jeff Samardzija


At the moment, the Yankees have seven starters for five rotation spots. That includes Ivan Nova and Adam Warren, who are depth arms and not oh gosh we need to clear a rotation spot for him arms. Masahiro Tanaka is coming off offseason elbow surgery, however, and the trio of Nathan Eovaldi (elbow), CC Sabathia (knee), and Michael Pineda (forearm) all got hurt in the second half.

Those seven starters come with seven question marks — Nova stunk this year, Warren has never spent a full MLB season as a starter, Luis Severino is a 21-year-old kid — and while adding rotation help may not be a top priority this offseason, it would make sense to at least explore the market. After all, the Yankees had those seven guys this past season and they still needed Chase Whitley, Chris Capuano, and Bryan Mitchell to make some starts.

The 2015-16 free agent class is loaded with starters. You’ve got aces, mid-rotation guys, reclamation projects, you name it. We haven’t seen a free agent class this deep with arms in a very long time. One of those arms is right-hander Jeff Samardzija, who is coming off a disappointing season but nevertheless is expected to receive a significant contract this winter. The Yankees have already been connected to him. Let’s dive in.

Recent Performance

Like I said, the soon-to-be 31-year-old Samardzija had a disappointing 2015 season with the White Sox. The idea players cost themselves money with poor performance gets thrown around too much — no, those two bad weeks in September won’t kill a guy’s free agent value — but Samardzija definitely did. He was potentially looking at $100M+ this offseason. Anyway, here are his last three years.

2013 213.2 4.34 3.77 23.4% 8.5% 48.2% 13.3% .309 .342
2014 219.2 2.99 3.20 23.0% 4.9% 50.2% 10.6% .279 .292
2015 214.0 4.96 4.23 17.9% 5.4% 39.0% 10.8% .302 .357
2013-15 647.1 4.09 3.73 21.4% 6.3% 45.6% 11.5% .297 .332

Okay, so which one is the real Samardzija? Is it the guy who was okay at best in 2013, the guy who was an ace in 2014, or the guy who led the league earned runs and total bases allowed in 2015? For some reason I feel like the answer is none of the above. The truth is probably somewhere between 2014 and 2015, which is an incredibly wide range of possible outcomes.

I think it’s important to note the White Sox had one of the worst defenses in baseball this season, which surely contributed to Samardzija’s trouble preventing runs. They turned relatively few balls in play into outs behind him. The bad defense doesn’t explain a five percentage point drop in strikeout rate or the ten (!) percentage point drop in ground ball rate*, however.

* Samardzija went from 0.82 HR/9 last year to 1.22 HR/9 this year, and that’s all due to the sudden lack of ground balls. His HR/FB% rate was basically identical those two years.

Let’s take a deeper look at at the type of contact Samardzija has given up the last few seasons and see what’s going on there.

GB% FB% LD% IFFB% Pull% Oppo% Soft% Hard%
2013 48.2% 31.4% 20.4% 10.1% 36.5% 23.0% 17.8% 28.2%
2014 50.2% 30.5% 19.3% 10.6% 38.0% 24.4% 19.9% 24.7%
2015 39.0% 39.8% 21.2% 10.1% 40.2% 26.4% 18.7% 26.7%
2013-15 45.6% 34.1% 20.3% 10.2% 38.3% 24.7% 18.8% 26.5%
MLB AVG 45.3% 33.8% 20.9% 9.5% 39.1% 25.7% 18.6% 28.6%

Samardzija’s hard and soft contact rates have been right in line with the league average the last few years. Same goes for pull and opposite field rates. If there was a lot of hard contact or a spike in pull rate — suggesting hitters were getting around quicker on his stuff — it would be a significant red flag.

Fly balls are not necessarily a bad thing — most fly balls are catchable, routine plays — and Samardzija has gotten a bit more infield pop-ups than the league average pitcher the last three years. Pop-ups are almost as good as strikeouts. They’re as close to a sure out as there is in this game. Still, Samardzija’s ground ball rate fell and his fly ball rate climbed big time in 2015, and that’s something we can’t ignore.

Something caused those changes in Samardzija’s fly ball and ground ball rates this year. They’re just the symptoms of the problem, not the problem itself. Samardzija’s stuff and pitch mix may have the answers, or at least point us in the right direction.

The Stuff

At this point of his career Samardzija is a true five-pitch pitcher. He stopped toying around with a changeup and a curveball a few years ago, instead settling on a splitter and slider as his go-to secondary pitches. Three different fastballs — four-seamer, sinker, cutter — round out his repertoire. Here’s a real quick average velocity breakdown from Brooks Baseball:


That’s a pretty significant drop in four-seamer velocity, right? Samardzija lost 1.3 mph off his heater last season. The velocity drop on his other pitches — sinker (.52 mph), slider (.97 mph), cutter (.64 mph), splitter (.90 mph) — is not as severe but is still notable. Samardzija was still one of the hardest throwing starters in baseball last season, that’s important to remember, but there was enough of a velocity drop across to board to make you notice.

Samardzija’s pitch selection the last three years is pretty interesting. Most guys who throw five pitches really throw like three pitches and occasionally flash the other two. That’s not the case with Samardzija. He throws all five regularly. Here’s the data, again via Brooks Baseball:

Jeff Samardzija pitch selection

Samardzija threw all of his pitches at least 12.7% of the time last year and didn’t throw one more than 24.7% of the time. He doesn’t throw the splitter to righties and he doesn’t throw the slider to lefties, which makes sense, but otherwise Samardzija uses everything. This isn’t Tanaka throwing that slow curveball four or five times a game, for example.

I am not at all surprised to see Samardzija threw his cutter significantly more often last season. White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper is renowned for teaching the cutter and getting his pitchers to emphasis it. Cooper taught Jose Quintana and Gavin Floyd a cutter in recent years and turned their careers around. Samardzija always threw a cutter, but he nearly doubled his usage of the pitch this season from just two years ago.

And perhaps that is part of the problem. The additional cutters — and additional sliders, I’m guessing some of those sliders were cutters that maybe broke more than usual and wound up being classified as sliders — came at the expense of sinkers more than anything, and hey, that might explain the sudden drop in Samardzija’s ground ball rate. Then again, his grounder rate was down across the board, on all his pitches. Again via Brooks Baseball:

Jeff Samardzija ground ball rates

MLB Averages: Four-seam (37.9%), sinker (49.5%), slider (43.9%), cutter (43.0%), splitter (47.8%).

So much for the idea that fewer sinkers led to fewer grounders. Well, no, that is true to a certain extent for Samardzija, but the ground ball inducing ability took a step back with all five of his pitches last season. That is tied to the velocity loss at least somewhat. How much, exactly? I don’t think we can say.

Cutters have a reputation for sapping arm strength — Eno Sarris wrote a great piece about this back in April — and I guess there’s something to the idea of scaling back on Samardzija’s cutter usage going forward. That could lead to increased effectiveness overall and maybe a slight bump in velocity, but I don’t think we can say that with any certainty.

For the sake of completeness, let’s look at the swing-and-miss rates of Samardzija’s various pitches, once again with the help of Brooks Baseball:

Jeff Samardzija whiff rates

MLB Averages: Four-seam (6.9%), sinker (5.4%), slider (15.2%), cutter (9.7%), splitter (14.9%).

Samardzija’s four-seamer is a great swing-and-miss pitch. It was this past season even with that lost velocity. There’s something to be said for having the ability to throw a fastball by a hitter. It’s a great skill to have. Samardzija also gets a better than average whiff rate on his sinker and cutter, but the slider and splitter? Comfortably below average.

Lefties hit Samardzija hard this past season and the swing-and-miss rate on his splitter dropped off big time. I’m guessing those two things are related. Is it possible the reduced effectiveness of the split-finger fastball is tied to the increased cutter usage? Sure. It takes (slightly) different mechanics to throw different pitches, and suddenly throwing more cutters than ever could have affected his other pitches.

One thing we have to keep in mind: Samardzija still has pretty nasty stuff. He still throws very hard despite the velocity loss, he uses five pitches regularly, and he misses bats with his fastball. This isn’t a guy going out there with Freddy Garcia stuff.

Injury History

Samardzija has never been hurt in his pro career. Not even in the minors. No arm injuries, no pulled hamstrings, no stubbed toes, nothing. He’s a big — listed at 6-foot-5 and 225 lbs. — strong guy and an incredible athlete, all of which points to durability. Any pitcher can get hurt at any time, but there’s nothing in Samardzija’s history that will make you cringe.

Furthermore, Samardzija turns 31 in January but he has significantly fewer innings on his arm than the other top free agent starters. He split his time between football and baseball in college, and he spent the 2008-11 seasons working mostly in relief with the Cubs. Buster Only (subs. req’d) had a great little nugget in yesterday’s blog post.

Among the upper-tier starting pitchers in this year’s free-agent class, Samardzija has easily thrown the fewest pitches in the majors, partly because he served as a reliever his first four years with the Cubs. Here’s where he compares with other top free-agent starters in total MLB pitches during the regular season:

Zack Greinke: 33,189 pitches
Johnny Cueto: 22,786
David Price: 22,724
Jordan Zimmermann: 16,793
Jeff Samardzija: 15,906

Greinke is the oldest of the group by several years, hence that big workload. Price and Cueto have been workhorses throughout their careers, so it makes sense they’re essentially tied for second. Zimmerman has thrown more pitches than Samardzija despite missing a season due to Tommy John surgery.

All pitchers have wear and tear on their arms by time they reach their 30th birthday and Samardzija is no exception, but his arm has not endured the workload of other top free agent starters because he split his time between two sports as an amateur and spent significant time as a reliever after first reaching the show. That may mean he’ll hold his stuff into his mid-30s, a little longer than you’d normally expect.

Loose Yankees Ties

Two of the reasons the Yankees have been connected to Samardzija are pitching coach Larry Rothschild and special advisor Jim Hendry. Rothschild was Samardzija’s first pitching coach with the Cubs and Hendry originally drafted, signed, and developed Samardzija when he was Cubs GM. So the Yankees have some firsthand knowledge of him.

That said, Rothschild only spent parts of three seasons with Samardzija, and he wasn’t moved into the rotation until two years after Rothschild left the Cubs. Hendry was fired as Cubs GM the year before Samardzija moved into the rotation. The relationships might not be as close as you’d expect. If nothing else, Rothschild and Hendry should be able to give the Yankees some knowledge about Samardzija as a person. His work ethic, that sort of stuff.

Contract Projections

The White Sox made Samardzija the qualifying offer last week and I expect him to reject it before Friday’s deadline, even after his down year. Samardzija should have no trouble beating that $15.8M guarantee on the open market. I know the pitching class is deep and there are plenty of alternatives, but basically every team besides the Mets is looking for rotation help this winter. The demand is still greater than the supply. Samardzija will get his.

Anyway, in addition to a hefty contract, whoever signs Samardzija will have to forfeit their highest unprotected draft pick thanks to the qualifying offer. For the Yankees, that is their first rounder, tentatively scheduled to be No. 22 overall. Here are some contract projections for Samardzija:

Based on those three, Samardzija is expected to receive roughly $17M a year for four or five years. That’s basically the A.J. Burnett contract (five years, $82.5M), which is fitting because Samardzija and Burnett can both tantalize you with their stuff and frustrate you with their results.

Remember though, it has been seven years since Burnett sign his contract with the Yankees. The market has changed a lot since then. Paying a starter $17M a year now is not the same as doing it back then. Back in 2009 only four pitchers had contracts with an average annual value of $16M+. This past season 18 pitchers had a contract worth that much annually. So yeah.

Wrapping Up

Samardzija’s best attribute is his durability. He’s never been hurt, he’s logged 210+ innings in each of the last three years, his arm is fresh, and he consistently pitches deep into games. Samardzija completed seven innings in 19 of his 32 starts this past season. The Yankees as a team had their starter complete seven innings only 35 times in 2015.

Also, Samardzija’s stuff took a slight step back this past season, though it could be tied to his increased cutter usage. He still flashes brilliance and dominates on occasion. Samardzija had four starts with a 75+ Game Score this season. The Yankees as a team had ten. Lots of innings and occasional brilliance doesn’t equal an ace, but I don’t think anyone is looking at Samardzija as an ace anyway. Four or five years and $17M per year isn’t ace money anymore.


At this point I think Samardzija is what he is. Signing him and expecting his game to take a significant step forward probably isn’t realistic. He might — I think he will, not might — be better than he was this year simply because he figures to have a more competent defense behind him going forward, but I wouldn’t count on ever seeing the 2014 Samardzija again either. He’s talented and durable and the results leave you wanting more.

The Yankees love big power pitchers who don’t walk anyone — I think Samardzija’s improved walk rate the last two years is the result of an athletic pitcher getting locked into his mechanics — and Samardzija fits the bill. He’s also played for a team in a big market with intense media in the Cubs — shouldn’t his Notre Dame football experience count too? — and has an old school give me the damn ball bulldog mentality.

“Back in the day, the game was left in the starter’s hands,” said Samardzija to David Laurila in July 2014. “If the starter pitched well, he was given his 120 pitches. The game was decided by the starting pitchers. It’s different now and I think that’s unfortunate. When you get into tough situations, regardless of your pitch count, a lot of times a reliever is brought in. I understand why – it’s to preserve the game — but you have to keep your relievers’ arms fresh too. I like the idea of the starters deciding what happens in the game.”

I think the Yankees can use rotation help, and I’m sure if you gave the front office a truth serum, they’d say they want to find a way to upgrade the starting staff as well. If nothing else, it would be nice to have one guy you could count on to chew innings every fifth day, right? Asking the bullpen to get 10-12 outs a night is no way to go through a season (again). Samardzija can give you those innings.

Sinking four or five years and $17M annually into Samardzija to be an innings dude who is ideally your second or third best starter might be tough to swallow, but I think it is fair market value. If the Yankees intend to avoid huge money free agent contracts — like the one David Price will get, for example — Samardzija might just be their best option in free agency.

Teixeira, Gregorius, Gardner do not win 2015 Gold Gloves


Earlier tonight, the 2015 Gold Glove Award winners were announced. The three finalists at each position were announced last week and the Yankees had three: Mark Teixeira at first base, Didi Gregorius at shortstop, and Brett Gardner at left field. All of this year’s Gold Glove winners are right here.

None of the three Yankees won a Gold Glove this season. Teixeira lost to Eric Hosmer, Gregorius lost to Alcides Escobar, and Gardner lost to Yoenis Cespedes. Cespedes was only in the league half the season! Also, I guess it wasn’t enough that the Royals won the World Series, huh? Gotta hog the Gold Gloves too? Rude.

Anyway, the Yankees have not had a Gold Glove winner since 2012, when Teixeira and Robinson Cano won. Managers and coaches vote for the Gold Gloves in their leagues — they can’t vote for their own players! — and there’s also a statistical component too.

The MVP, Cy Young, Manager of the Year, and Rookie of the Year awards will be announced last week. The Yankees don’t have any finalists. No awards this year. For shame.

Tuesday Night Open Thread

The GM Meetings continued in Boca Raton today with some more relatively minor hot stove chatter. The biggest story to me is commissioner Rob Manfred saying the league will look to a) extend the netting behind home plate, and b) play Spring Training games in Cuba next year. There are still some hurdles to clear for (b) to happen, but I have to think the Yankees would be a candidate to play those games, right? Short flight from Tampa and they’re one of the most recognizable sports brands in the world. We’ll see.

This is your open thread for the night. The Rangers, Devils, Islanders, and Knicks are all in action. I hear that Kristaps Porzingis guy is quite a player. Anyway, talk about those games or whatever else is on your mind right here.

No Yankees among 2015 major awards finalists

(Mike Skobe/Getty)
(Mike Skobe/Getty)

MLB and the BBWAA announced the three finalists for each of the four major awards Tuesday evening. That is the MVP, Cy Young, Manager of the Year, and Rookie of the Year. They’ve been announcing three finalists for a few years now as a way to drum up interest.

As expected, no Yankees were among the three finalists for any of the four awards. Their best shot at one of this year’s awards was the Comeback Player of the Year, though Alex Rodriguez lost out to Prince Fielder. So it goes. You can see the three finalists for each award right here.

Now just because no Yankees are among the finalists doesn’t mean no Yankee received awards votes. Mark Teixeira and A-Rod are candidates for down-ballot MVP votes — the ballot runs ten players deep, after all — maybe Brian McCann too. Dellin Betances might steal a few Cy Young votes on the five-man ballot. Heck, maybe he’ll get some MVP votes too.

I would be surprised if Luis Severino received any Rookie of the Year votes. That ballot is only three players deep and I can’t imagine any voter omitted Carlos Correa or Francisco Lindor. So Severino is up against a bunch of other dudes for third place. Joe Girardi has appeared on at least one Manager of the Year ballot every season since 2009 and I don’t expect that to stop this year.

Votes for the major awards are cast following the end of the regular season but before the postseason, so the playoffs have no impact on the awards. The four major awards will be announced next week. Rookie of the Year are Monday, Manager of the Year Tuesday, Cy Young Wednesday, and MVP Thursday.

Yankees not interested in Daniel Murphy, seeking “more balance” at second base

(Sean M. Haffey/Getty)
(Sean M. Haffey/Getty)

As soon as Daniel Murphy started smashing home runs in the postseason, it was inevitable the former Mets second baseman would be connected to the Yankees this offseason. They have a need at the position and Murphy put on a show, and this is a “what have you done for me lately” business, so the dots would soon be connected.

After arriving at the GM Meetings yesterday, hipster Brian Cashman told reporters the team is not interested in Murphy as a free agent. They want “more balance” at second base, which is a nice way of saying better defense. From Mark Feinsand:

“I think if we’re going to pursue something, we have two offensive-profile players already at that position,” Cashman said, speaking in broad terms when asked about Murphy. “So if we did any changing there, it would be seeking more balance on both sides of the ball.”

“Like anything else with roster management, if there’s opportunity to upgrade and have a more balanced out defense/offense profile, great,” Cashman said. “If not, we feel encouraged by what we saw in September.”

The Yankees have Rob Refsnyder and Dustin Ackley penciled in at second base right now — they’re said to be “leaning toward” using those two next year, but the offseason is young — and they’re basically younger and cheaper versions of Murphy, right? They don’t make contact like Murphy but all three guys are offense first players with suspect defense.

The Mets slapped the qualifying offer on Murphy and I can’t see giving up a first round pick to sign him. Maybe the Yankees would swoop back in later in the offseason after they give up their first rounder for a top free agent — say, Jason Heyward or Zack Greinke — and revisit signing Murphy if his market collapses, but that seems unlikely. Both the signing a top free agent part and Murphy’s market collapsing part.

I’m not a huge believer in Refsnyder but I do think it’s time to give him a chance to sink or swim. He’s going to be 25 in March and his brief cameo in September went well. I wouldn’t call it likely, but it’s possible Refsnyder and Murphy are both ~110 wRC+ hitters next year with shaky glovework. Murphy is a solid player who would make many teams better. Given the cost and their available internal options, I don’t see him as a great fit for the Yankees.

Sherman: Yankees looking to buy low on Jurickson Profar

Profar and Gary Sanchez are AzFL buddies. (Presswire)
Profar and Gary Sanchez are AzFL buddies. (Presswire)

According to Joel Sherman, the Yankees have asked the Rangers about the availability of infielder Jurickson Profar, who was once arguably the best prospect in baseball. He’s been beset by shoulder injuries the last two years, including a labrum tear that required surgery in February, so the Yankees are looking to buy low.

Profar, 22, is currently playing in the Arizona Fall League, though he is limited to DH duty because he hasn’t been cleared to resume throwing. He’s hitting .239/.321/.435 (95 wRC+) in 12 games but the numbers don’t really matter. Keith Law (subs. req’d) saw Profar recently and said his “bat speed is totally intact” after the shoulder injury.

I answered a question about Profar in last week’s mailbag and the short version of my answer is yes, the Yankees should absolutely look to buy low on him if possible. I just don’t think the Rangers will move him while his trade value is so low. They hung onto him through the injuries, might as well wait to see what happens when his shoulder is at full strength, right?

“We are not looking to trade him,” said Rangers GM Jon Daniels to Sherman. “We held onto him this long. We are pretty optimistic his shoulder is fit. The mindset is to wait and see where he is. We believe he will get back to his value, which was one of the best young players out there.”

Sherman says the Yankees have interest in Profar as a second baseman, which might now be his ultimate long-term position if the shoulder injuries limit his ability to make throws from the left side of the infield. The Yankees are set at shortstop for the time being, but they do have a need at second base, at least until Rob Refsnyder shows he can handle the job.

Missing two full years at such a young age scares me — those are two lost development years Profar can’t get back — but I still love the idea of buying low on Profar. Even if his days at shortstop are over, he’s still incredibly young — younger than Kris Bryant! — and he projects to have big offensive value while adding nifty defense. No mystery why the Yankees inquired, right?

The Evolution of Nathan Eovaldi [2015 Season Review]


A year ago at this time the Yankees were talking about getting younger, and they meant it. They made several trades designed to get younger last offseason, one of which brought Nathan Eovaldi to the Bronx in a five-player trade with the Marlins. The Yankees surrendered Martin Prado and David Phelps for Eovaldi, Garrett Jones, and prospect Domingo German.

Just a year ago Eovaldi led the NL with 223 hits allowed, and he’d been hittable his entire career, so it was fair to wonder how he would handle the transition to the AL. At the same time, Eovaldi was only 24 at the time of the trade, he has unteachable arm strength, and his FIP had gradually declined from 4.35 in 2011 to 4.13 in 2012 to 3.59 in 2013 to 3.37 in 2014. The Yankees are big believers in DIPS theory and in their eyes Eovaldi was trending in the right way. He wasn’t a finished product. Instead he was a ball of clay they could maybe mold into something special.

The Hope of Spring

Many of us got our first real look at Eovaldi during Spring Training. We knew the scouting report, we’d seen the stats and highlight videos, but watching a guy pitch in an actual game is a different animal. Eovaldi was excellent during Grapefruit League play, allowing four runs in 18.2 innings spread across four starts and one relief appearances. He allowed 14 hits, walked three, and struck out 20. I’m not sure you could have asked for a better showing in camp, but, of course, it was only Spring Training.

More Hits, More of the Same

The Yankees slotted Eovaldi into the No. 4 spot of the rotation and his first start of the season was fine. He allowed three runs on eight hits and one walk in 5.1 innings against what everyone assumed would be a high-powered Red Sox offense. Five days later he held the Orioles to two runs in five innings, and six days after that he had the kind of start that showed everyone why the Yankees coveted him.

Eovaldi held the Tigers to one run on eight hits and a walk in seven innings that night, striking out four. It was the kind of outing you wanted to believe was a sign of things to come. Eovaldi didn’t dominate, but he used his offspeed pitches effectively and pitched off his big fastball.

That wasn’t a sign of what was to come, however. Eovaldi allowed four runs on seven hits in 4.1 innings against the Mets next time out, and over the next seven weeks or so he was occasionally good, occasionally great, and occasionally mediocre. Little of everything. He’d show flashes of greatness but was mostly frustrating. Eovaldi had a way of leaving you wanting more.

On June 16th, against his former team in Miami, Eovaldi had the kind of disaster start he always seemed to be on the brink of having. The Marlins pounded Eovaldi for eight runs on nine hits in two-thirds of an inning. It happened quick too, only 25 pitches. Eovaldi went into the game with a 4.13 ERA and a .310/.355/.440 batting line against. He left with a 5.12 ERA and a .329/.371/.464 batting line against.

Though his first 13 starts with the Yankees, Eovaldi had that 5.12 ERA (4.09 FIP) in 70.1 innings. He was still giving up a ton of hits (97!), the problem that plagued him in the past, and his strikeout (15.7%), walk (6.0%), and grounder (48.8%) rates were relatively unchanged. Eight runs in two-thirds of an inning is an anomaly. Overall though, Eovaldi was pretty much the same pitcher in 2015 that he was in 2014.

A New Pitch, A New Pitcher

Soon after Eovaldi showed up to Spring Training, pitching coach Larry Rothschild went to work fine-tuning his mechanics and repertoire. He introduced a splitter, which Eovaldi tinkered with on and off in camp and into the regular season. Following that disaster start in Miami, Eovaldi began to lean on the split a bit more often.

Nathan Eovaldi splitter usageThe results were rather remarkable. Eovaldi allowed two runs or less in six of the seven starts immediately following the Marlins game, and, more importantly, opponents only hit .245/.295/.265 in 41.1 innings in those seven starts. The hits weren’t coming as often (38 allowed in those 41.1 innings) and his strikeout rate increased a bit to 18.1%.

The splitter gave opposing hitters something else to think about. Eovaldi has a tremendous fastball, regularly flirting with triple digits — at 96.6 mph, he had the hardest average fastball among starters in 2015 — but he didn’t have a quality secondary pitch hitters had to respect. They could zero in on his fastball and take advantage no matter what the radar gun said. The split-finger was the off-balance pitch Eovaldi needed.

From June 20th to August 24th, a span of 12 starts and 73.2 innings, Eovaldi posted a 2.93 ERA (2.92 FIP) and held hitters to a .235/.295/.289 batting line. His best start of the season came on August 24th against the Astros, when he shut them out over eight innings in the eventual win.

The splitter helped Eovaldi post an improved strikeout rate (18.8%) and ground ball rate (55.7%) during those 12 starts, and while his walk rate (7.9%) increased, it was still better than the league average. Once he began to use the splitter more often, Eovaldi was so much more effective in the summer months. He wasn’t an ace but he was reliable and arguably the team’s best pitcher for a stretch of several weeks.

A Premature End

Eovaldi struggled a bit in back-to-back starts on August 30th (five runs in five innings against the lowly Braves) and September 5th (three runs in 5.1 innings against the Rays with four walks), and perhaps not coincidentally, he was shut down with elbow inflammation shortly thereafter. An MRI showed no structural damage and the plan was no throwing for two weeks.

Because he was shut down in the season’s final month, Eovaldi never did return to the mound after that September 5th game. He was shut down for two weeks, then started a two-week throwing program that extended into the postseason. Eovaldi threw a simulated game on the day between the end of the regular season and the wildcard game and was all set to be added to the ALDS roster as a reliever had the Yankees advanced. (Reliever because there wasn’t enough time to stretch him out as a starter.)

The elbow injury really stunk, the Yankees could have used the new splitter-happy Eovaldi down the stretch, but at least he was healthy enough to join the ALDS roster had the team advanced. That’s the silver lining. Eovaldi finished his first season in New York with a 4.20 ERA (3.42 FIP) in 154.1 innings. His strikeout (18.0%) and walk (7.3%) rates were lower than the league average but his ground ball rate (52.2%) was very good. His home run rate (0.58 HR/9 and 7.8 HR/FB%) was excellent.

Among the 89 pitchers to throw at least 150 innings in 2015, Eovaldi ranked 31st in fWAR (3.2) and 46th in bWAR (2.3), putting him right in the middle of the pack. It was an uneven season for him, for sure. The start wasn’t so good, the middle was great, and the end came quicker than expected because of the injury. That he took so well to the splitter was encouraging.

The New Split

That split-finger fastball started as a forkball. Teaching a pitcher a new pitch isn’t always as simple as showing him a new grip and making him throw it in the bullpen. Splitters are complicated because the fingers are spread so far apart, so, in an effort to get Eovaldi used to the grip, Rothschild had him start the season throwing a true forkball before shortening up to a tradition splitter grip.

Here’s a before and after photo of Eovaldi’s forkball and splitter grips. The forkball is on the left, the splitter is on the right.

Nathan Eovaldi grips

Eovaldi’s fingers are much more spread apart in the left photo. You can tell that from the seams of the ball — his index and middle finger appear to be on the white of the baseball, next to the widest part of the horseshoe. In the right photo his fingers are on the seams, but the horseshoe is out beyond his fingertips, not choked back. It’s a small difference that apparently makes a big difference.

Not only did Eovaldi get some more action on the ball with the splitter grip, he also got more velocity. We don’t know when exactly he changed grips, but boy, look at his velocity chart, and it’s hard not to notice it jumped from mid-80s to hovering around 90 mph in the middle of June one day.

Nathan Eovaldi splitter velocityThe splitter velocity spike neatly cuts his season in half — Eovaldi made 14 starts with the mid-80s forkball and then 13 with the 90 mph splitter. I assume that’s when he changed grips, but who really knows. Here’s a before and after look at that split-finger pitch.

% Thrown Velo. Whiff % GB % Vert. Mvmt Horiz. Mvmt
First 14 Starts 10.7% 85.5 18.0% 68.0% 2.7 -2.3
Final 13 Starts 28.4% 89.6 16.5% 68.9% 2.4 -5.6

It’s almost like Eovaldi added an entirely new pitch. He threw it nearly three times as often in the second half, it had four miles an hour more velocity, and it tumbled an additional three inches or so. (Negative horizontal movement means it broke in on righties and away from lefties.) That’s a big difference!

The ground ball rate on the pitch remained unchanged and it actually generated fewer swings and misses, but you know what? Eovaldi’s fastball went from a 6.4% whiff rate and a 44.6% ground ball rate in the first 14 starts to a 7.2% whiff rate and 47.2% ground ball rate in his final 13 starts. Pitches are not independent of each other. Eovaldi’s fastball played up because hitters had to honor that splitter.

Clearly Eovaldi is not a finished product. He was always going to be a long-ish term project for Rothschild, and the fact his splitter went from unused pitch to legitimate weapon this season is a huge step forward. Next year he can work on other stuff like fastball command and his slider and curveball. At least now Eovaldi has a second weapon he can use. He’s not just a fastball guy anymore.

Looking Ahead to 2016

Eovaldi is under team control as an arbitration-eligible player for another two seasons — MLBTR projects a $5.7M salary next season — and while he is among the team’s better trade chips, the elbow injury at the end of the season puts a damper on things. I wouldn’t ever rule out a trade, but, right now, it appears Eovaldi is ticketed for a rotation spot next year as the Yankees hope he will build on his midsummer success.