For as kind as the month of May was to Yankees starter Nathan Eovaldi, the month of June has been equally unkind. In fact, it has been downright brutal.
After posting a respectable 3.25 ERA in May, and seeing his team win five of his six starts, Eovaldi has watched his June ERA balloon to 8.65, with the Yanks losing four of his five starts this month. In the team’s lone June win with Eovaldi on the hill, they needed a 12-run outburst to blanket the struggling starter’s five earned runs scattered over five innings of work.
After a stretch of three consecutive starts in May where Eovaldi surrendered only three earned runs over 18 innings, the wheels have completely fallen off, leaving many scratching their heads.
The troubling aspect is that the stuff is there. After all, his average fastball velocity is at 97 mph this season, second in the majors behind only Noah Syndergaard. Despite the power arm, Eovaldi finds himself in the bottom ten of the league in home runs allowed per nine innings. He appears to have the tools to be shut-down starter, but it has yet to materialize with any type of consistency.
Command is not the issue. Eovaldi is surrendering fewer walks per nine innings than what he averaged last season. The problem is how hard he is being hit. That usually means a lack of command, but not the kind where a pitcher cannot find the strike zone. This lack of command is when a pitcher gets too much of the strike zone, and gets pummeled as a result.
Does this tune sound familiar? For Yankees fans, it should. It was only a few years back that we all watched and pulled our hairs out to the sight of A.J. Burnett taking the mound with a lively fastball and filthy curve, and getting bombed repeatedly.
Like Eovaldi, Burnett always surrendered too many long balls in the midst of his struggles. He would try to use his fastball to set up his wicked curve, but the effectiveness of a pitch vanishes when the location isn’t there, regardless of movement or velocity.
It’s fairly simple. When Eovaldi can locate, he is incredibly tough to hit. The same was true with Burnett. The problem for Burnett was the inability to locate consistently. For example, in his 2010 campaign with the Yanks, Burnett finished the month of April with a 2.43 ERA. His June ERA was north of 11, and he failed to record a win the entire month. His ERA the next month was amazingly at an even two, but that was followed by a 7.80 ERA in August. The roller coaster affair left fans and coaches baffled at what to do with the erratic starter with an electric arm who had an average fastball of just over 93 mph.
A similar feeling can be sensed around the dugout when Eovaldi takes the mound, especially in recent weeks. Which pitcher will you get? The one who uses his scorching fastball to set up a putaway breaking ball, or the pitcher who cannot locate either, leading to an offensive outburst?
Below, we see the former, where Eovaldi is able to use his fastball to set up his two strike breaking ball to finish hitters off. Almost all of his strikeouts in this start against Toronto came on low breaking balls out of the strike zone, causing the hitter to get out on his front foot and chase. It was a brilliant start that looked like a work of art, when everything finally comes together.
In his last outing, the location wasn’t there, and the results were disastrous. In his nightmare sixth inning, when he surrendered three consecutive long balls to the Twins, Eovaldi was hammered on breaking balls that wound up belt-high or right at the letters. No matter how good anyone’s stuff is, they are going to pay for pitches that get this much plate, regardless if they have to be wary of a flaming fastball.
It is clear that Eovaldi needs to keep his breaking balls down to avoid the long ball, given the numbers and the park he pitches in. That is what Burnett was not able to do during his 2010 season when he finished third worst in the majors in homers per nine innings.
Is Eovaldi suffering an identity crisis much like Burnett did? The scenarios are eerily similar. Back in the Burnett era, we saw him mow down a tough Phillies squad in the World Series, where Yankees catch Jose Molina barely had to move his glove all night. Then we saw the Burnett who could not throw anything below the belt, and ended up with dizziness after turning so many times to see baseballs deposited over the outfield wall.
This season, we can watch Eovaldi shut down a potent Blue Jays lineup, only to be pounded by an inferior Twins team shortly after. The confusion is maddening at times because the tools are definitely there, and have been seen in action.
The Yankees eventually raised the white flag on the Burnett experiment and shipped him to Pittsburgh in 2012. They are hoping Eovaldi can turn his season back around and become what they hoped for when he was acquired from the Marlins.
Unfortunately, the team has done this dance before, and we saw how it turned out. Many similarities can be found between Eovaldi and Burnett, perhaps too many. Eovaldi will hope to write his own story instead of replicating a memory of inconsistency and frustration that surrounded Burnett’s tenure in the Bronx.