There are a lot of ways to be a good pitcher. There are those like Dallas Keuchel, who get groundballs all the time, seemingly because he feels he’ll be punished for allowing any other outcome. One could also be an Aroldis Chapman type that strikes out a whole lot of people, and all it takes is a fastball that basically nobody can touch coming in at more than 100 mph.
Or, you could be a Nathan Eovaldi, who doesn’t often strike out batters despite having the second-fastest average fastball among qualified starters, and he does generate a lot of groundballs — he’s 16th in the league there.
But even with that very fast fastball, Eovaldi has never really been much of a striker-outer as a professional, though it’s worked out for him anyway. He ranks 39th in fWAR among qualified starters this year, which puts him right by Jason Hammel and Alex Wood. Those guys are pretty good pitchers, and Eovaldi is, too. We’ll head to Eovaldi’s landing page on Brooks Baseball now to get a breakdown on his fastball, specifically, because that's what this whole post is going to be about.
His fourseam fastball is blazing fast, results in many more groundballs compared to other pitchers' fourseamers, has some natural sinking action and has slight armside run.
If you were to read on, you'd find that, with the exception of a slower, loopy curveball, Eovaldi is a hard-thrower. And while velocity alone doesn’t make someone a great pitcher or even mean a pitcher will generate more whiffs, it certainly helps most guys.
As found on Baseball Savant, among the 110 pitchers who’ve thrown at least 1,500 pitches this year, Eovaldi’s whiff percentage on the four-seamer sits at 51st, which is a little better than average. If we narrow that search to fastballs with average or better velocity (92 mph is this year’s average, as found on FanGraphs), Eovaldi actually fares a little better. The field is narrowed to 92 pitchers, and Eovaldi ranks 26th. That's a pretty good place to be, even though batters whiff against Eovaldi’s heater just 2.27 percent of the time. The four-seam fastball obviously isn’t a swing-and-miss pitch for most pitchers, and, despite a nice ranking among his peers, it’s the same for Eovaldi.
Part of the reason Eovaldi gets more groundballs and fewer whiffs is because of the locations he goes with, as seen here:
Those are for all pitches, against all batters, in all counts. He stays in the middle or low in the zone, and specifically low and away to righties. Then, when Eovaldi gets two strikes, he goes even lower and even more away (lower and awayer, some might say).
Just as a reminder, these last two pictures have shown all pitch types — not just fastballs, or just sliders, or anything like that. Going low and away is a great way to get grounders, and Eovaldi does that better than most other pitchers, and it’s worked out really well for him so far. But he could get more strikeouts if he wanted to, and here’s how:
Those are pretty good whiff rates in the upper part of the strike zone and right above it, which leads me to believe that Eovaldi’s aversion to getting strikeouts is probably by choice. If you have the stuff to get swings and misses, pitching to contact seems like a conscious decision, and it’s worked out fine.
I’m sure the Yankees realize that he gets quite a few whiffs up there, and Eovaldi might know it himself, because I’m just some guy and I was able to find it. They focus on Eovaldi a lot more than I have.
If Eovaldi wanted to get more strikeouts and fewer grounders, it seems like throwing more of those very fast fastballs up in the zone could be a way to do it. But, hey, there’s nothing wrong with getting grounders. Outs are outs, and Eovaldi has been pretty good about getting those so far. Top notch velocity gives you an opportunity to pick your poison, and Eovaldi has chosen his.
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Murphy Powell is a contributor at Beyond the Box Score, where is he instructed to pitch up in the zone. You can follow him on Twitter at @murphypowell.