Boston Red Sox MLB New York Yankees

Nathan Eovaldi Looks to Cap Career Year Against a Familiar Team

Written by Jameus Mooney

It was 1978 when Hall of Fame slugger Reggie Jackson told the press “the season coming down to a game like this between them and us is kind of perfect.” Bucky Dent quieted the usually-raucous Fenway faithful before Rich Gossage got the save to send the Red Sox home in a win or go home situation. It was 2003 when Aaron Boone, the current skipper of the Yankees, walked off the Red Sox to send them home in Game 7 of the ALCS, one game shy of the World Series. Boston’s World Series drought extended to 86 years. The very next year, the Yankees commanded a 3-0 lead, seemingly consolidating their stranglehold over Boston as they were one game away from their sixth World Series appearance since 1996. That was until a bloody sock and Mark Bellhorn homerun forced an eventual Game 7, where Johnny Damon’s grand slam put the nail in the coffin of the New York Yankees. Since that game, the Red Sox have won more championships than the Yankees at a 4:1 ratio as the teams slug it out in the American League East.

That was until 2020, when a new beast emerged and the Rays went to the World Series for the first time since 2008. Once again in 2021, the Rays are surging into October and making a lot of Lowe’d noise with the American League’s top record. The Yankees and Red Sox both finished at a 92-70 clip, tying in the American League Wild Card to see who will face Tampa Bay. The game is tonight as former Yankee Nathan Eovaldi takes the mound against one of his former teams to force his way into a playoff round with another of his former teams. Eovaldi, a first-time All-Star in 2021, is coming off of his best year in the Majors, having posted a 3.75 ERA. The ERA can be a bit misleading, as his 2.79 FIP was the top in the AL. The Red Sox have their defensive woes, even fielding a not-so-solid defense of JD Martinez, Hunter Renfroe and Kyle Schwarber left-to-right outfield at one point this season. They’ve also had many miscues out of first base, third base and catching. All things considered, Eovaldi was excellent in 2021 in areas that he could control, such as the walks (lowest walk rate in the American League), Ks (9.6 K-per-9) and less than one homerun surrendered on average per nine innings of work, despite playing in a notoriously hitter-friendly environment.

This is the type of arm the Yankees expected to develop Eovaldi into when they acquired him from the Marlins in the Martin Prado deal in 2014. It was in his first year in New York that he relied heavily on his split-finger, which wasn’t apart of his repertoire in Los Angeles or Miami. In 2016, he developed a cutter. New York turned him from a three-pitch machine (fastball, slider, curveball) to a five-pitch swiss army knife. Ultimately, Eovaldi was released due to his second Tommy John surgery and picked up by the Rays. The Rays dealt Eovaldi to Boston after half a season for Jalen Beeks and Eovaldi went off with the Sox. Eovaldi posted a 3.33 ERA the remainder of the regular season and in the Postseason, Eovaldi pitched five shutout innings in in relief the Game 3 marathon until Max Muncy hit an 18 inning moonshot to walk it off. He had given up one run over eight innings of work en-route to his first (and so far only) championship.

Eovaldi became an instant-legend in the metropolitan Massachusetts area for his gutsy performance against the team he came up with at Chavez Ravine. He was rewarded with a four-year, $68M deal to return to Boston. In his first season back, he posted an ERA just south of 6 in yet another injury riddled campaign. Once again, it was “loose bodies.” The same injury that required two Tommy John Surgeries and that he had hit the IL with during his Tampa tenure. Eovaldi was able to work through it, however, and in 2020 was solid for the Red Sox. He was tabbed the Opening Day starter for the first time and in a pandemic shortened season, posted a 3.72 ERA.

As the 2021 season progressed, Eovaldi’s fastball to lose bite (he averaged 96.9 on the gun, his lowest average fastball velocity since 2015) but his stuff seemed to have more bite. He used his curveball at an 18.8% rate, 8% higher than over the course of his career. He used his cutter a 12.5% rate, also higher than his career average, but also well-below the 25% rate from 2020. His 42.4% fastball usage is more than 10 ticks lower than his career average. Eovaldi ultimately mixed up all five of his pitches more as opposed to being over-reliant on his fastball as a way to keep hitters on their toes. The result? A career year. He has been better over his career at Yankee Stadium, with a more desirable 3.72 ERA, yet that’s a much-larger sample size that covers more ground than what he’s done on the road in 2021. The great news for Eovaldi and the Red Sox? The game isn’t on the road and he won’t have to deal with a Yankee Stadium win-or-go-home environment.

The game is at Fenway Park. In 2021 at Fenway, Eovaldi has been electric. His home ERA in 2021 is 3.47 and a lot more encouraging than his performances on the road. Eovaldi has pitched more innings on average-per-game. On the road, opposing lineups hit to a .785 OPS with a .271/.313/.471 slash against him. At home, that slash falls to a .241/.281/.358 line, or .638 OPS against.

The lineup he’s facing is the Yankee lineup. Despite the offensive prowess of players such as Anthony Rizzo, Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge, the lineup isn’t very intimidating. The lineup ranked seventh in the American League in OPS (.729) and struggled to consistently put the ball in play (ranked 13th in batting average in the American League). A team such as Tampa Bay grounded into the least amount of double plays in the league, but the Yankees grounded into the second most double plays in all of baseball, just beating out the Washington Nationals. While the Yankees are great at consistently putting hitters on base via walks and have an enormous amount of power in the lineup, a majority of their contact is weak and when they do put it in play, they erase quite a few of those walks.

Another thing to consider is which players Eovaldi will be facing. Contrary to popular belief, the Yankees aren’t here for their offense. Their offense in 2021 has been awful at times, but relatively lackluster for the majority of it. Players like Gleyber Torres are still in the lineup despite the fact they’re not good defensively and significantly below league-average (Sub-.700 OPS, 93 OPS+ and .366 SLG) out of necessity because players such as DJ LeMaheiu, who finished top five the last two years in MVP voting, are on the IL. It’s not even as though LeMahieu has been such an overwhelmingly better option in 2021 either, sporting a 97 OPS+ and .711 OPS. It’s the defensive prowess of DJ that made him such a more attractive option to the alternative of Torres, as Torres is among the worst defensive players in the league. It’s the overall approach of the team at the plate and the only two players who have been saving graces for the Yankees on the offensive side are Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge. Stanton, finally healthy, had a monster 2021. Stanton posted an .870 OPS, 136+ and hit 35 homeruns in 139 games. Judge was somehow even better. Judge, a 6-win player per BBRef standards, hit 39 homeruns with a .916 OPS and 149 OPS+. As long as Eovaldi doesn’t make a mistake to Stanton or Judge, it’ll likely be smooth sailing, especially with the opposite directions that Eovaldi and the Yankee lineup seem to be trending.

In Eovaldi’s final outing of the 2021 regular season, he pitched exquisitely with six innings of shutout ball. The Yankees, on the other hand, were outscored 16-6 over three games against the Rays, being held to one run or less through eight in two of the games with their season on the line. The last time the Yankee offense balled out was actually against Eovaldi at Fenway on September 24th, putting up seven earned in just under three innings against their former righty. He only gave up three extra-base hits in that outing, including a homerun from Stanton and double from Judge. A majority of the hits the Yankees tagged off of Eovaldi in that game weren’t especially well-tagged, rather the defense woes from the Red Sox letting him down as he induced ground balls (again, the FIP was a full-run lower than ERA). As long as the infield is prepared for him to work ground balls the Red Sox should be in good shape with Eovaldi on the mound.

The Red Sox, however, should also have trouble with their offense. JD Martinez still hasn’t confirmed whether or not he will play due to the ankle injury. Rafael Devers has been one of the league’s most potent hitters, but loses his lineup protection should Martinez be a late-scratch. The opposing pitcher is Gerrit Cole, who along with Blue Jays Robbie Ray, is a frontrunner in the race for the American League Cy Young award. Cole posted a 3.23 ERA (2.92 FIP) and struck out 243 hitters in 181 innings of work in 2021. Cole had his struggles from spidertack withdrawal early but ultimately proved that he still is one of the leagues top aces. With that, the Yankees have all the opportunity in the world to move on. But, everybody expects that from Gerrit Cole. Nathan Eovaldi can cement his place in the lore of the Yankees/Red Sox feud for eternity with a stellar outing tonight, at home, against his former club for a chance to face another club he once played for.

The American League Wild Card game is at 8 EST on ESPN.

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Jameus Mooney